What a bizarre season it’s been.
Any lineup that trots out names like Michael Martinez (career .183 batting average) and Jayson Nix (career .216 batting average) has no business being in the middle of a pennant race. Yet that’s exactly where the Pittsburgh Pirates are, mostly because of the play and production of unsung heroes and castaways from other teams.
Seriously, who among us could have predicted the Pirates being nine games over .500 in mid-August, only 1.5 games out of first place, with names like Pedro Alvarez and Gerrit Cole being complete non-factors?
That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Andrew McCutchen has been shelved for more than a week and landed on the disabled list for the first time in his career. The team is 5-3 without its MVP in the lineup.
Neil Walker has been down for nearly the same amount of time with back tightness, taking away one of the best second basemen in the National League this year.
The list goes on: Jason Grilli was traded, Wandy Rodriguez was designated for assignment, Alvarez forgot how to throw a baseball, Cole made only three starts since the end of May.
Every team has slumping players, and every team has their fair share of injuries. But nobody could have predicted the names of the players who’ve stepped up and carried the team through these rough patches.
Edinson Volquez won his 10th game on August 12 after holding the potent Detroit Tigers lineup to two runs over six innings. Volquez, the fifth starter in the rotation, now leads the team in wins and has compiled a 3.67 ERA to go along with it.
Not bad for a castaway whose 5.71 ERA was the worst in baseball last year. The Pirates got him for $5 million in the offseason to help fill a hole left by A.J. Burnett.
Fans widely ridiculed the addition and panned the front office for not signing bigger names with bigger arms. It appears that Volquez is earning every bit of that paycheck, according to David Manel of Bucs Dugout:
However, in a largely unexpected twist to this season, Volquez has emerged as one of the Pirates' more stable starters. In a year in which the club has had its share of disappointing stories amongst the pitchers who came north with the team, Volquez's performance has been an important and pleasant surprise.
Then there’s Vance Worley, a man affectionately nicknamed “The Vanimal.” Who could have possible seen his amazing season coming when the Pirates traded for Worley in March? They got him for practically nothing from the Minnesota Twins and immediately was banished to the minors.
Until the injuries came, that is. Worley made his first start on June 15 and hasn’t looked back since, compiling a 5-1 record with a 2.30 ERA. He has been one of the most productive pitchers in baseball in that span and is 3-0 with a 0.96 ERA in his last four starts.
The stupendous season hasn’t been lost on Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Given up for next-to-nothing by the Minnesota Twins, Worley, 26, has found new life with the Pirates. He hasn't been just a good pitcher, his numbers rank him as one of the best in the National League. What makes his story even sweeter is he's under Pirates control for three more season.
That’s not to mention offensive production coming from unusual areas.
Russell Martin’s contributions to this team cannot be overstated, and some can make a case he’s been the Pirates’ MVP this season. His defense, pitch-framing and rapport with the pitching staff speak for themselves. So does his .289 batting average and .814 OPS.
Then there’s Josh Harrison. What else can be said about his scrappy, all-out play on a nightly basis? He has been absolutely on fire the past month as his .372 batting average is the fifth best in baseball during that span. His 1.088 OPS is the highest in baseball in the last 30 days.
His worth to the team isn’t lost on Smizik, who is completely serious when he says Jay-Hay should be in contention for the National League’s MVP award:
If National League Most Valuable Player balloting were held today, it would be interesting to see how the Pirates’ Josh Harrison would fare. The word of Harrison’s stellar season hasn’t fully made it to the general public, but surely the men and women charged with doing the voting are aware of his truly remarkable performance and the impact it has on the Pirates’ success.
This list could go on: Jordy Mercer has been one of the best shortstops in baseball since the early parts of the season. Travis Snider has provided a potent bat as of late while trying to bridge the gap in the outfield. Gregory Polanco is hitting .366 in 41 at-bats during the month of August.
None of this translates into an automatic playoff berth or division win. But don’t look now: If the season ended today, the Pirates would again host the Wild Card play-in game and would make the playoffs for the second straight season.
A tough schedule looms ahead full of National League Central foes. It will be a tough mountain to climb to keep winning and to make the playoffs, especially in one of the most competitive divisions in baseball.
But the team has come this far and won this many games with an assorted cast of unsung heroes. They’ve carried the team this far. What’s to say they can’t carry it a bit farther?