July 20, 2011

Pirates Enemy Number One: Milwaukee

By Robb Witmer Full  |  July 20, 2011

“Pirates suddenly relevant in NL Central” - headline on ESPN.com, July 19, 2011

The Pittsburgh Pirates will wake up on the morning of July 20, 2011, in sole possession of first place in the National League Central Division.

The Pittsburgh Pirates will wake up on the morning of July 20, 2011, in sole possession of first place in the National League Central Division.

No matter how many times I type that out, it still doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Yet, here we are. Forget all the talk about a miracle run at a .500 record, the Buccos are about to find themselves right in the thick of an actual pennant race.

By almost any measure, this season has already been a thrusting success. With 67 games remaining, the Pirates only need seven more wins to exceed last year’s total.

This team is certainly capable of second-half collapses (see: well, almost every year for the last decade), but even a record of 26-41 the rest of the way (a 100-loss pace) would put them at 77 wins, more than they’ve had any season this century.

Any Pirates fan not driven to half-mad hallucinations by the past eighteen years of Epic Losing would have given their maxillary first molars for a mere sniff of a winning record this season.

Now it seems as if the dream is coming true without the aide of any black-market dentistry. In the absence of another historic collapse, this team will most likely be playing important games in the last month of the season.

Whether those games come in the form of Chance-to-be-.500, or of the Pennant Race variety is largely up to their Central Division opponents, which is the best thing the Pirates have going for them right now.

Forget about the Astros and the Cubs, who are just this year’s version of the Pirates. The Reds could put up a fight the rest of the year, but methinks they were playing out of their skin in ‘010.

The Cardinals are the clear favorite here. In typical Cardinals fashion, they will be there at the end, and on paper they have the best team from top to bottom. The best the Pirates can do is hang with them for as long as they can and hope things get all loosey-goosey in the last few weeks of the season.

The team that holds the key to the Pirates success, that can and will make or break their season, is the Milwaukee Brewers. If any team has ever had a true nemesis, the Brewers are it for the Bucs. Since 2007, the Pirates are 17-51 against the Crew (that’s a .250 clip), 34 games under .500.

As bad as the Pirates have been over that stretch, they’ve never sunk to those depths for an entire season, which means they were picking up games on everyone else to get up to whatever their miserable winning percentage ended up being.

During the same timeframe, the Brewers are eighteen games over .500, making them an exceptionally below-average team for all those years were it not for their dominance of the Pirates.

With the attention on whether the Pirates need to upgrade at the trading deadline, the real difference in this season will come down to how they perform against the Brewers.

As it is, there is ample room for improvement on the Pirates. Lyle Overbay is making Adam LaRoche look better and better every day, and if a power bat isn’t added at first base, then general manager Neal Huntington will have to find one somewhere and shoehorn it in where he can.

But it won’t matter who’s batting cleanup in this lineup if they continue to find new and exciting ways to lose to the Brewers. As the season series stands now, 5-0 in favor of Milwaukee, the Pirates have already missed some opportunities to put some distance between the two teams, even if it only means taking two of five.

Actually, a forty percent winning percentage against the Brewers would be such a massive improvement that reaching this meager goal could be considered a huge step for the Bucs, especially in their quest for a winning record.

As for a division title? Whew... I don’t think I’m truly ready to think about that. Could any of us handle that sort of reality-warping right now? Maybe after a few hours of sleep.

Robb Witmer Full pays attention to baseball until football exists again.