The Pittsburgh Pirates are 8-2 in their last 10 games after throttling the St. Louis Cardinals 9-0 in a series-clinching win Sunday at Busch Stadium. The victory gave the Pirates a half-game lead in the NL Central going into Monday’s showdown with the Milwaukee Brewers.
The series win was the Pirates’ fifth of the kind since the start of the season, as Clint Hurdle’s group have only dropped two three-game sets so far—the opening set against the Chicago Cubs and the subsequent series on the road against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
For most of the year, the Pirates have gotten by on the strength of their excellent bullpen, which boasts the major’s second-best team reliever ERA.
Anchored at the back by first-year closer Jason Grilli, who has converted all 10 of his save opportunities and just recently surrendered his first run of the year Sunday, the self-named “shark tank” has kept games clean with a league-leading WHIP of 1.09.
Reliever Mark Melancon, who was acquired in the deal that sent All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox, leads the majors in holds with nine. His minuscule 0.64 ERA is also the best mark on the team.
Lefty Justin Wilson, who spent the majority of 2012 in the minors, has also provided quality relief. To see the differences in staffs, the three-game set with the Cardinals was the perfect stage to showcase the opposite ends of the spectrum.
Additionally, the offense has picked up its efficiency significantly over the last few weeks.
Catcher Russell Martin has proven to be a catalyst on both sides of the equation, improving his average from .143 on April 18 to .267 on April 28. During the 10 games in which he played in that period, Martin hit .444 with five home runs and eight RBI.
Perhaps the most eye-opening statistic is on the defensive side of things. Martin has already thrown out as many baserunners this season as Rod Barajas did all of last season (six). For reference, Michael McKenry did throw out 13 would-be base stealers in 18 less games played than Barajas. Martin’s caught-stealing percentage: 35 percent. Barajas’ and McKenry’s caught-stealing percentages: six and 18 percent, respectively.
Aside from Martin and the tremendous starts from first basemen/right fielder Garrett Jones (.324 avg., two home runs, 13 RBI) and Travis Snider (.303 avg. and seven doubles), third baseman Pedro Alvarez has also started his path to revival.
Alvarez began the season mired in a 3-for-41 slump which saw him strike out 16 times over the course of 13 games. Since April 17, the former No. 2 overall pick has hit .325 with four home runs and 10 RBI. The hot streak has seen his average surge up to just short of the Mendoza line (.198), but he has hit safely in nine of his past 11 games.
Somewhat surprisingly, center fielder Andrew McCutchen has been unable to break out of his prolonged funk. McCutchen has been up and down with his contributions this season, leading the team in RBI (13) yet struggling to maintain consistent production. That inconsistency has led to a .216 average and Hurdle giving the All-Star outfielder a day off Sunday.
McCutchen’s offensive rough stretch can be traced to the tail end of last season, as the Silver Slugger Award winner began the month of September hitting .343 and finished the season at .327. On Aug. 7, his average was at a ridiculous .372.
The Pirates pitching staff has the ability to stabilize an offense that has fluctuated greatly this season. The added components on defense are key variables to the equation of whether or not the early winning is sustainable. Once McCutchen gets back to his MVP-caliber performance level, this team has the potential to reach heights not seen in decades.