Sunday, August 12, 2012

With Fans on the Brink of Panic, the Pirates Storm Back to Defeat the Padres and Salvage Final Game of Weekend Series

It was almost exactly a year ago at this time that the San Diego Padres came into PNC Park for a weekend series and pummeled the skidding Pirates in a three-game sweep that saw Pittsburgh get outscored, 35-10. Those three humiliating losses were the finishing touches on a 10-game losing streak that knocked Pittsburgh out of first place and into a tailspin that set it on course for a 19th straight losing season.

It was a pretty surreal weekend, for sure, especially considering that the Padres were pretty bad, and that the Pirates had just been swept in a four-game series by an equally bad Cubs team at PNC earlier in the week. 0 for 7 on a home-stand that everyone thought would be a cake-walk for the young Buccos.

Well, the current 11-game home-stand that the team is in the middle of wasn't shaping up to be nearly as disastrous, but it was a little too familiar to last year, that's for sure. The Pirates, in second place in the NL Central and current place-holder of the second wild card spot in the National League, split a four-game series with the Arizona Diamondbacks earlier in the week. That wasn't considered a huge deal. Three of four would have been nice, but the D'Backs aren't chopped liver, and they came into PNC within shouting distance of the Pirates in the standings and not too far out of the NL West race.

But San Diego was a different story. It's teams like the Padres that the Pirates have to beat up on with so many teams in the race for those wild card spots. Instead of taking care of business against San Diego, however, Pittsburgh blew a 7-1 lead Friday night and lost, 9-8. Last night, with ace A.J. Burnett on the hill, the Pirates offense was lifeless, and Pittsburgh fell, 5-0.

It was shaping up to be another horrible early August sweep at the hands of the Padres, who came into Sunday's action having won 11 straight games at PNC Park, dating back to 2009. And to compound matters, the Dodgers and Cardinals, two of those teams still in the hunt for the postseason, had inched closer to the Pirates in the wild card standings. The Dodgers came into today's action 2 1/2 games back of Pittsburgh, and the Cardinals came in only 1 1/2 games back. And after losing five straight, the Cincinnati Reds had regained their composure and had moved to 4 1/2 games ahead of the Pirates in the Central division.

My worst fears appeared to be coming true when the Padres opened up a 5-0 lead after two innings Sunday afternoon. However, the Pirates scored a run in the bottom of the 3rd inning and erupted for nine more in the bottom of the 4th--including Clint Barmes' first career grand slam--and won going away, 11-5.

The win snapped a three-game losing streak and, at least for now, alleviated some fears that Pirates fans had. A loss today may have sent the fan base into full-blown panic mode, and who could have blamed them? We've seen too many late-season meltdowns and total collapses in recent years to not feel a sense of urgency every time the Pirates lose a few games in a row.

The good news is the Pirates have a four-game series coming up against Los Angeles starting Monday night, and then they go to St. Louis for three games. The Pirates can do something about their wild card lead and put some distance between the teams behind them. The bad news, however, is that Pittsburgh has been scuffling as of late. After today's win, the Pirates are still only 4-6 in their last 10 games. And since the All-Star break, they're 16-13. The 16-13 mark isn't necessarily horrible, but with so many teams still in contention, you have to figure that one of them is going to catch fire and go on an extended run. Playing .500 baseball over their remaining 48 games will give the Pirates their first winning season since 1992, but it probably won't get them into the playoffs.

As I said, some team is going to catch fire down the stretch. For a change, maybe it will be the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates.

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