Playoff-Clinching Pittsburgh Pirates a Dark-Horse Threat in October

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterSeptember 24, 2014

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There's something about the Pittsburgh Pirates and Sept. 23. On Tuesday, the Pirates secured a postseason berth in similar fashion to—and on the exact same date as—their 2013 clincher. And yet their second straight trip to October after 21 years away has a different, more legitimate feel to it.

A 3-2 win over the unraveling Atlanta Braves combined with the Milwaukee Brewers' loss to the Cincinnati Reds sealed the deal for the Pirates, who got the tie-breaking, game-winning, postseason-clinching hit from Starling Marte—just like they did a year ago.

After his ninth-inning home run did the trick in 2013, Marte managed to win it with a double to break a 2-2 tie in the sixth and put Pittsburgh up for good.

"Was that on the same day?" Marte wondered aloud after his second-year-in-a-row heroics, according to Tom Singer of MLB.com. "I remember the home run. And this, it was beautiful."

Forget that other made-up Pirate-related holiday on Sept. 19—the 23rd is now International Clinch Like a Pirate Day.

Pittsburgh has reached this point by playing great baseball down the stretch. The win marked the Pirates' 15th in 18 games and propelled them to within 1.5 games of the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Central lead.

In other words, while the club is assured of at least a wild-card appearance at this point, there's a chance it could win the division outright and get a series to start.

"We've got more work to do," second baseman Neil Walker said via Singer. "This hopefully was just the first stop. Not the destination."

That's just the attitude and approach these underrated Pirates should have now. They have the goods to be a real dark-horse threat in October.

Rob Biertempfel @RobBiertempfel

#Pirates Gerrit Cole perhaps says it best: "This establishes our presence in the league. And we're not gonna go away."

A year ago, that wasn't necessarily possible because the franchise entered the playoffs having just put a merciful end to the longest streak of losing seasons—20—in the history of the four professional sports.

That hung all kinds of hype around the Pirates down the stretch in 2013, and quite a bit of pressure too, as they wound up reaching the postseason via the wild card for the first time since 1992.

After all, who would want to get there after all that time just to be bounced in nine innings?

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Pirates clinch a playoff spot for 2nd straight season. Last time Pirates went to playoffs in consecutive seasons: 1990-92 (3 straight)

That said, there certainly was a just-happy-to-be-here sentiment to the Pirates' postseason last year. Like they were the little brother who finally fought his way and got the chance to play ball with his older siblings.

This time around? That feeling is gone.

One October? That's a cute story with the potential to wind up being a bit of a fluke. But two straight? That's practically a trend these days.

Now it's up to the Pirates to capitalize. In 2013, they took out the Cincinnati Reds in the one-game playoff before falling short in five competitive games against the Cardinals in the Division Series.

If they don't overtake St. Louis for the division crown over their final five games, the Pirates at least have that been-there-done-that experience to draw from and could once again return to the NLDS.

Rob Biertempfel @RobBiertempfel

#Pirates 3, #Braves 2 ... and it's Buctober again! Thanks in no small measure to this guy ... http://t.co/UJP2hWGX0N http://t.co/bbnivpGXJf

From there, the Pirates have it in them to advance. Especially with reigning MVP (and current MVP contender) Andrew McCutchen surrounded by a deeper, more dynamic lineup.

There's third baseman Josh Harrison, an out-of-nowhere breakout player who is making a run at the NL batting title (.317 average), and catcher Russell Martin, a nine-year vet whose .405 on-base percentage ranks in the top five in the majors.

Not to mention, Walker has smacked a career-high 21 homers, while Marte has been on fire with a .358 average and NL-best 1.005 on-base-plus-slugging percentage since Aug. 1, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Starling Marte's game-winning hit Tuesday punched Pittsburgh's ticket to October again and continued his hot hitting.
Starling Marte's game-winning hit Tuesday punched Pittsburgh's ticket to October again and continued his hot hitting.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

On the pitching side, Pittsburgh is led by co-aces Gerrit Cole, the former No. 1 overall pick who retired the final 17 he faced to earn the win Tuesday, and Francisco Liriano, who has bounced all the way back from early-season struggles to post a 2.00 ERA in the second half.

The rotation also includes the under-the-radar Charlie Morton (currently dealing with a sports hernia) as well as reclamation projects like Edinson Volquez, Vance Worley and Jeff Locke. If that doesn't sound like much, you haven't been paying attention to the Pirates lately.

And of course, there's the unflappable bullpen, composed of a mix of quality lefties, primarily the hard-throwing Justin Wilson and the dynamite Tony Watson, and righties like the revitalized John Axford, the steady Jared Hughes, the upstart John Holdzkom and closer Mark Melancon.

Add it all up, and it's no wonder the Pirates have a 3.02 post-break ERA that is in the top five in the sport.

With a 1.44 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and more than a strikeout per inning, Tony Watson is one of the best lefty relievers in baseball.
With a 1.44 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and more than a strikeout per inning, Tony Watson is one of the best lefty relievers in baseball.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

With the depth and talent on this roster, the Pirates have gone from fun, quirky October footnote last year to legitimate dark-horse threat this season.

And Sept. 23 could be just the beginning.

Statistics are accurate through Sept. 23 and are courtesy of MLB.comBaseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11