Despite a recent stretch that had many people writing them off, the Pittsburgh Pirates remain as alive in the National League wild-card race as they have ever been.
Following Tuesday night's thrashing of the Cardinals, the Bucs sit two games behind St. Louis and a half-game ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Cardinals are one of the best teams in baseball, so the Pirates' task will not be easy.
But the Bucs have proven time after time that they will not go down easily this season. The Pirates have the chops to stay in this race on both sides of the ball, and they have the potential to improve during the season's final month.
If all goes to plan for the Pittsburgh Pirates in September, they may very well be playing playoff baseball this year.
The Pirates' recent slump has resulted in a mass exodus from their bandwagon, as the Cardinals overtook them in the wild-card race and are new presumed to be healthy favorites to make the playoffs.
Yet the Bucs have not actually played particularly badly during this stretch. The Pirates are 2-6 over their last eight games, but over that period they have only allowed two more runs than they have scored. The Pirates have lost two run one games and an extra-inning game during their last eight games.
Last week's sweep at the hands of the San Diego Padres was a great example: The Pirates lost each game by two runs, and in each game it felt like they always had guys on base. The Bucs easily could have won the series if a few breaks had gone their way (and with better roster decisions and in-game management).
Every team has stretches where they seem to be finding ways to lose, and the Pirates happened to have had their stretch last week. There's no reason to believe they will continue to lose all of their close games in the future.
Last night's blowout of the Cardinals was critical for several reasons, but one of the main causes for excitement was certainly Pedro Alvarez' monster performance. The third baseman's two home runs raised his season-long total to 25, and OPS now sits comfortably above .800.
Alvarez and Garrett Jones have had tremendous seasons, and between them, Travis Snider, and Michael McKenry, there is potential for the Bucs to go on another one of their long-ball binges. Jones and Alvarez are notoriously streaky players, and if they get hot at the right time, they are a force to be reckoned with.
The Pittsburgh offense was dominant throughout June and July. The chance that the Pirates can channel that performance again in September makes them a big player in the wild-card race.
Another positive sign from last night's Pittsburgh victory was the dominant performance from James McDonald. Twice during the past two weeks, McDonald has been lights out against the Cardinals, one of the league's best offensive teams.
In those two games, McDonald has allowed the Cardinals four hits over 13 innings while striking out 13 batters. The Redbirds haven't scored. Given McDonald's dominance during the first half of the season, there is some reason to believe he can return to this form.
In any event, the Pirates' second-half struggles last season showed that pitching to contact can only get a team so far. While McDonald and A.J. Burnett have had their recent issues, they are capable of winning pitchers' duels and/or beating elite offenses because they have ace-quality stuff.
As is the case with the Pirates' power hitters, if their power pitchers get hot, the team can ride them down the stretch.
The Pirates are used to being written off by now. Every slump, practically every defeat for that matter, is an excuse for many believe that the team is going back to its losing ways. Yet they keep bouncing back.
Given the Bucs' history, it would have been easy for the players to remember their 2011 collapse and fold after a rough start to August, but they hung around instead. There's no reason to believe they will respond any differently following last week's rough patch or that they will lose their composure in September either.
This clubhouse seems to have learned a fair bit from the 2011 season, and the Pirates now look like a team that knows how to play in a playoff race.
The Pirates play 17 games in the month of September against the Astros, Cubs, and Mets. The Astros and Cubs are the dregs of the National League, and the Astros and Mets have both played horribly since the All-Star break.
If the Pirates play up to their capabilities, they can make up a tremendous amount of ground on their opposition in these 17 games. Something like a 12-5 or 13-4 record in those games is not out of the question.
These 17 games are actually more than half of the Pirates' remaining schedule, so they have the potential to give the Bucs a huge leg up in the playoff race.
While the Pirates have neglected to make full use of their available resources up to this point, they have several players in Triple-A who can help the team down the stretch. September call-ups will take place in three days, and the Bucs should benefit greatly from expanding their roster.
The Pirates released a struggling Erik Bedard yesterday, creating an opening at the No. 5 slot in their starting rotation. While they will not need an additional starter for at least a week, the Bucs have options in the minors like Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson who are capable of providing strong spot-starts.
The Bucs also have several options in Triple-A to address their thin bullpen. Chris Leroux, Bryan Morris, and Justin Wilson can all give the Pirates some extra punch down the stretch.
Even the Pirates' hitting should get a boost in September, as Starling Marte will eventually come off the DL to take over the lead-off role once again.
When the going gets tough, it's always good to have the best player in the league on your side. That used to always be true of the Cardinals, but with Albert Pujols gone that honor now falls to the Pirates.
Andrew McCutchen remains the favorite to win the National League MVP, and after a cold stretch in mid-August it looks like he is regaining his form. Even during his slump, McCutchen was often hitting the ball with authority (he hit one or two balls in PETCO that would have been home runs in any other park), and he is now hitting line-drives to all fields again.
When the Pirates' power hitters get going and McCutchen is consistently getting on base in front of them, the Bucs are an extremely dangerous offensive team. Given McCutchen's pedigree and performance, it's likely he will hold up his end of the bargain. The Pirates have been at the mercy of the likes of Pujols and Ryan Braun for years; now it's time for their MVP to take over in September.