Dog days of August
I’ve been here before. It’s the Dog Days of August. It’s hot. The excitement of a new season has turned into a day-to-day grind. This is the 20-mile mark of a marathon where you’ve run farther than you ever have before; you hurt like you never have before; and you’ve still got more than six miles to go! The cooler weather of a September pennant race seems like a lifetime away. These are not the days you triumph over; they are days that you must grit your teeth and push through it in order to survive.
Let’s not forget the fact that this has been an amazing season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. What began as a possible run at .500 somehow turned into a possible run for the division and the playoffs. Let’s not forget that a .500 record would be a 24-game improvement on last year’s record. Let’s not forget that this years Pirates are only 3 games away from equalling their win total for all of 2010.
Their current six-game losing streak has reflected a team that is depleted, tired, and, at times, over matched by superior pitching. (Or, even average pitching.) What’s the cause? It could be those two hot-weather losses in Atlanta that took thirty innings and involved a horrific, game-deciding umpire’s call. Perhaps the Buccos have had trouble shaking that off. Then they were destroyed by a machine called the Phillies. Facing Lee and Halladay after that Atlanta trip was a cruel joke. Since then, the hitting has gone further into a shell and even the pitching has begun to show wear and tear.
It sure feels as if the Pirates are on the edge of a cliff and a fall back to baseball reality and historic Pittsburgh baseball futility. I’ve come to the painful realization that our hitters are not in a slump. They just can’t hit. At least not this year. Lyle Overbay was a doubles machine and a stellar defensive first baseman, until this year. Last year, Neil Walker (.296), Andrew McCutchen (.286), and Jose Tabata (.299) were hitting the ball. Heck, even Lastings Milledge hit .277.
This year, only Walker is hitting .280 or above. (Actually, .280 exactly.) At this point in the season, hoping for some kind of hitting resurgence is starting to seem unrealistic. It could be that only the rest of an off season is going to allow them to turn things around. If that’s the case, many a Pirate hitter must be kicking themselves. These kinds of seasons don’t come along that often in a major career unless you are Chipper Jones.
Sure, the pitching has been, for lack of a better word, heroic. Pitching has put the Pirates where they are. But three of our starters–Karstens, Morton, and McDonald–have already reached their career highs for innings pitched in a season. At six and a half games back, the Pirates need to make a move now. You can’t make up that kind of distance in one month. Before August is through, the Pirates will face the Brewers and Cardinals seven more times each. That should decide things. In order to make a move, the Pirates cannot split those games. They must win four or five teams against both teams.
Of bigger concern, however, is a more drastic swoon. That a six-game losing streak will turn into a much more damaging slide. I’d hate to see them destroy all the good will and fan support they have built. Pittsburgh baseball fans are still a bit neurotic. Any hard fall off of the bandwagon is only going to increase their future skepticism.
In other words, I’m hoping that the fading playoff hopes don’t dissuade this team from pressing on and surpassing the .500 mark this year. They can’t loosen their grips now. This is a dangerous point of the season. I fear that this is point where we shake it off and continue a magical run, or we plummet off the cliff of unrealistic expectations. The next two weeks will tell the tale.