Despite a stretch of poor play that has lasted over a month, the Pittsburgh Pirates remain only three games out of a playoff spot. Losing streaks from much of the Bucs' competition has left the Pirates one hot streak away from stealing a National League wild-card berth.
Given the way the Pirates have played lately, it may not even be likely that this team finishes the season over .500. Yet the Bucs' streaky nature means that they remain a legitimate threat to make the playoffs.
The Pirates have had a notoriously inconsistent offensive season, alternating between prolonged stints as the league's worst and as one of its best. The Bucs are more than capable of a month where they hit a home run or two each night, just as they are capable of a month where they average three runs a game.
In most cases, this is a recipe for disaster, as reliability and consistency are valuable traits over the course of a long season. But with the Pirates needing to win a vast majority of their remaining 17 games, streaky play is actually desirable.
Sure, their chances of finishing the season with fewer than 80 wins are less than Pirate fans would like, but the Bucs also have a greater chance of going 14-3 down the stretch than most teams would.
There are some signs that the Pittsburgh offense is coming around, even though poor bullpen play this weekend meant that the Pirates' offensive production only led to one win. The Bucs' offensive core has picked up their level of play, showing signs that a hot streak may be on the horizon.
MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen has rediscovered his hitting stroke, belting four home runs in his last seven games following a month-long cold streak. Pedro Alvarez joined the party Sunday, hitting two home runs to raise his 2012 total to 29.
Alvarez's big day was particularly important for Pittsburgh, as the Pirate third baseman may be the streakiest player in baseball this year. Alvarez is as capable of hitting 10 home runs in a week as he is of going hitless, and he has the kind of power bat that can nearly carry a team on its own.
He and McCutchen may not need to. If Neil Walker plays well in his return from injury and Garrett Jones maintains his strong second-half form, the Pirates have more than enough firepower to make a run.
Pitching remains the biggest question mark. James McDonald's demotion to the bullpen limits the Pirates' ability to go on a similar pitching hot streak, yet the Bucs' recipe for success at this point may be to combine average pitching with elite short-term offense.
A.J. Burnett is capable of this level of pitching, if not better, and Wandy Rodriguez has performed solidly for the Pirates as well.
There is a little too much pitch-to-contact coming from Jeff Locke and Kevin Correia right now, but this approach can at least lead to the six-inning, three-earned run starts that are "good enough" when a team has a big offensive night.
The Pirates are almost certainly a year or two away from being true contenders, and it is important for Pittsburgh fans to remember where this team was projected to finish before the season began.
Even the most optimistic supporter has likely had his expectations exceeded. It will be a disappointment if the Pirates fail to get over the .500 hump this year, but the Bucs would still have a lot to build upon in 2013 and beyond.
Yet it is Sept. 17 and the Pirates are still in the race. Crazier things have happened than the Bucs making one last run, and this Pittsburgh team might be crazy enough to do just that.
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