Pirates showing positive signs as they move into first place
If baseball’s regular season ended Thursday, the Pittsburgh Pirates would be a playoff team, and, of course, it doesn’t matter.
It’s true the Pirates have the fourth-best record in MLB (10-6) and are in first place in the National League Central, percentage points ahead of the Miilwaukee Brewers, who fell into second after a loss Thursday night to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But they have played less than 10 percent of the season, and no one will remember the modest four- and three-game winning streaks of April if Pittsburgh is faced with another October without baseball (which would be 24 of 27).
Yet there is hope as the Pirates come home for a seven-game home stand that starts Friday against the San Francisco Giants. The Pirates are 4-2 in extra-inning games (three of the four were away from PNC Park) and 7-5 in games decided by two runs or fewer. That indicates toughness and character.
Here are five thoughts as the Pirates try to remain relevant and prove their critics wrong.
1. Can starters keep dominating?
What is most amazing about the collective efforts of the five starters is Jameson Taillon, the presumed ace, has the highest ERA (3.43) and is the only one without a victory.
Joe Musgrove (0.81), Jordan Lyles (0.82), Chris Archer (2.00) and Trevor Williams (2.59) have been unbelievably good. They would be even better with improved defense behind them, but left fielder Corey Dickerson (shoulder strain) could come off the injured list before May 1.
2. Imagine consistent bullpen
Relief pitchers Felipe Vazquez, Francisco Liriano and Kyle Crick have yet to allow an earned run in 17⅓ innings. Vazquez has saved five of the 10 victories.
But at least those guys have a track record. Who is Nick Burdi, and will he ever stop striking out batters?
Burdi, 26, was obtained from the Philadelphia Phillies during the 2017 offseason for international slot money, seven months into his rehab from Tommy John surgery.
He missed all of last season (except for 12 1/3 innings), but, suddenly, he has struck out 15 batters in 7⅔ innings and was the winning pitcher in two games.
Say this for Neal Huntington: He knows how to assemble a bullpen.
But the puzzle has been Keone Kela, who has an 8.10 ERA while allowing batters a .286 average and failing to record a save in four opportunities. Kela and Rich Rodriguez, who is getting better, have surrendered a total of seven home runs. Six other pitchers have surrendered only nine.
3. Kang or Moran?
Jung Ho Kang went nearly two full seasons without seeing major-league pitching. So, why would anyone be surprised to see him struggle?
But his numbers are troubling (.130 batting average and .504 OPS), even though he barreled up two pitches Wednesday in Detroit.
Meanwhile, Colin Moran quietly goes about his business, never complaining about losing his starting third base job to Kang while driving in nine runs and hitting .300 in 15 games. He is second on the team to Josh Bell in RBIs but eighth in at-bats (30).
Manager Clint Hurdle should think twice before leaving Moran’s bat out of the lineup Friday.
4. Speaking of Bell …
The big guy is slashing .310/.382/.586 with three home runs and 13 RBIs and looking like the player the Pirates thought he would become when they coaxed him out of accepting a scholarship to Texas.
How much better will Bell be when Gregory Polanco returns from his shoulder injury, Starling Marte lifts his average out of the low .200s and they hit ahead of him in the order?
5. Offense sputtering
The Pirates have played 12 games decided by two or fewer runs partially because they don’t score a bunch.
Marte, Kang, Francisco Cervelli, Eric Gonzalez and Pablo Reyes are hitting a combined .172, with seven homers and 19 RBIs. Cervelli’s one RBI came from his only homer, but he must stay in the lineup because he is a superb handler of pitchers.
No wonder the Pirates have scored only 59 runs, 26th in the majors.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .