With a 5-4 comeback win over the San Diego Padres on June 29, the Pittsburgh Pirates completed their fifth series sweep of the season and earned their fourth victory in the last six games.
Pittsburgh ended the day at four games below .500 as it moved to 4.5 games behind the first-place Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central. The series sweep was refreshing, considering the Pirates had recently snapped a 10-game losing streak that lasted from June 13 to 22.
“It’s been kind of an up-and-down season for them,” said Pirates broadcaster Neil Walker, who played for the team at second base for seven seasons. “April was pretty strong, everything seemed to be going right for them. May was the exact opposite and in June it looked like they were turning back on a good corner and then they hit a skid.”
In the first month of the season, Pittsburgh reeled off a seven-game winning streak. With a 20-9 record, the Pirates had a .690 winning percentage, which was the best in the National League, and a major surprise from a team projected to win 67.5 games in the preseason by Caesars Sportsbook.
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At the beginning of June, the Pirates had slipped to 28-27, yet remained within contention in the division despite dealing with multiple key injuries. Most notably, projected standout shortstop Oneil Cruz suffered a fractured ankle in April, and Vince Velasquez, who had won four of his first six decisions with a 3.06 ERA, was lost to a season-ending elbow injury at the end of May.
Pittsburgh’s biggest star, Bryan Reynolds, then landed on the Injured List with back problems late in June, although he was on the verge of returning at the end of the month.
“Things haven’t quite gone their way and they’ve been banged up a little bit,” Walker said of the team’s fortunes prior to the recent six-game rebound. “I think the biggest thing for me was the injury to Oneil Cruz shortened this lineup quite a bit. He was such a huge piece.”
Still, Walker noted, other offensive performers have helped keep the team within range of a potential winning record.
“Guys have stepped up,” Walker said. “Ji Hwan Bae is a guy that’s gotten an extended opportunity to showcase what he can do. For him, it’s about putting the ball in play, because speed is his game and he’s been a really strong cog for this offensive group.
“Rodolfo Castro, especially from the right side, has stepped in and done a nice job. There are some interesting pieces to this Pirates team on the offensive side of things.”
As a rookie, Bae already has 20 stolen bases, and Castro came into play on Thursday hitting .300 with six home runs against left-handed pitching. Jack Suwinski leads the team with 16 home runs after hitting 19 in 106 games last season, although he has a .217 batting average.
As the Pirates wait for Cruz to return, the biggest addition to the lineup has been Henry Davis, the organization’s No. 2 prospect entering the season according to MLB.com. The 23-year-old old, who was hitting at a .351 clip in his first 10 games since being called up on June 19, had two RBI singles in Thursday’s win, including the game-winner, a few days after Walker told me Davis was a “guy that can change a game with one swing of the bat.”
“Guys like Suwinski and Davis, who have a lot of power, if you see them take that step forward with their approach and consistently put together good at-bats, that’s going to be a really good sign for this team going forward,” Walker said.
If the Pirates can make a bid for their first winning season in five years, starting pitching will continue to be an important part of the process. Entering play on Thursday, Pittsburgh’s starting staff ranked third in the NL with 28 wins after totaling an MLB-low 21 victories throughout the entire 2022 season.
“In my opinion, the biggest step forward has been the starting rotation. The bullpen and the starting pitching had been really, really good up until they had two tough losing stretches.” Walker said, referring to the 10-game losing streak and a seven-game losing run from April 30 to May 6, after the team had a 3.55 ERA in its first 29 games.
The biggest revelation for Pittsburgh on the pitching side has been Mitch Keller fashioning a breakthrough campaign in his fifth MLB season. He is tied for third in the Majors with nine wins, and has a 3.34 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP.
“Watching this team and following this team since he’s gotten called up, you knew the pitch arsenal was there. His cutter this year has been tremendous,” Walker said. Opposing batters have hit .213 against Keller’s cutter, according to Baseball Savant.
Velasquez has a 3.86 ERA and an opposing batting average of .240 this season, and Johan Oviedo has a 3.23 ERA in June. Rookie Osvaldo Bido has a 3.45 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 15.2 innings pitched, and Walker made sure to point out that reliever Dauri Moreta, who allowed no runs in 12 May appearances and notched his fourth win on Thursday, has exceeded expectations.
“More than anything for me, [pitching coach] Oscar Marin has done a really nice job of taking the staff and making them understand what makes them successful and how to get the most out of that,” Walker said. “The way that he does it is by individualizing each player, and the feedback from the pitching staff has been tremendous on how he has helped them game plan, stay within themselves and maximize their abilities.”
The Pirates have not won a division title since 1992, tied for the longest such drought in MLB. Pittsburgh may seem to be an unlikely playoff contender to many outside observers, as the team is also 6.5 games behind an NL wild-card spot, but winning the division could be more attainable.
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“I feel if they can keep themselves around .500, especially in the NL Central, and then you get a couple of new pieces and Oneil Cruz back, you’re at least giving this team a real opportunity to make a run down the stretch,” Walker said, while also adding that the team could be active near the trade deadline if it is maintaining respectability.
“I see them maybe adding a couple of pieces, whether that be to the bullpen, or maybe one more starting pitching arm, or maybe a bench bat, or something along those lines.”
The team’s inconsistency on offense has been reflected by the Pirates ranking 19th in batting average (.240) and 21st in OPS (.706). Reynolds is expected back by June 30, and returning hero Andrew McCutchen has hit .280 with a .830 OPS while Carlos Santana leads the team with 41 RBI.
“The bulk of the lineup has mostly consisted of Andrew McCutchen, Bryan Reynolds, and Carlos Santana," Walker said. “Those guys, day in and day out, put really good at-bats together.
“With Jack Suwinski, the power has been really impressive. He’s been streaky over his short time in the big leagues, but for the most part, when we’ve seen Jack stay in the zone, the results have been as about as good as anybody in the league. And when he’s kind of been going out of the zone and chasing a little bit, the results haven’t been so great.”
Walker believes that if the team can hold things together until Cruz returns, they may be able to stay in the postseason hunt. Until then, he stressed that the Pirates need to consistently get back to the offensive approaches that made them successful in April.
“We’ve seen this team at their best, we’ve seen them at their not-so-best, and all of that has basically been without Oneil Cruz,” he said. “This team, coming into the season, wasn’t built around the long ball. What this team was doing so well in April, was passing the torch, taking walks, moving runners, getting those runners in from third, hitting with runners in scoring position, and hitting the occasional home run.”
For Walker, who hit 93 home runs as a Pirates player, the second-most in franchise history as a switch-hitter, being in the broadcast booth in his second season has been a rewarding experience.
He grew up in the area as a Pirates fan and was very happy to see the team bring back McCutchen, the former NL MVP who was a superstar for the team from 2009 to 2017, while rewarding Reynolds with the richest contract in franchise history (eight years, $106.75 million).
“Andrew coming back has meant the world to him, me, and the city of Pittsburgh, and the organization, and the fanbase has especially rallied around him and this group,” Walker said. “The team committing to Bryan Reynolds was awesome. He does it all, there’s nothing he can’t do, and he has a very similar skill set to Andrew McCutchen in his prime.”
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“[Pirates owner] Bob Nutting has committed to bringing in quality veterans to help this team make that next step, along with [general manager] Ben Cherington. The veterans that they’ve brought in this season, between Rich Hill (seven wins), McCutchen, and Carlos Santana, have all been very valuable pieces, not just in the clubhouse, but on the field as well.”
Pittsburgh has made only three playoff appearances since its last division title, but Walker sees better times ahead and is glad to be along for the ride with the broadcast team.
“This city means the world to me, and playing here, and now broadcasting, I take a lot of pride in being involved with this organization and this city,” he said. “I really enjoy watching this team on a nightly basis, win, lose, or draw.
“I can’t wait until things really go right for this organization. You feel like it’s right around the corner and I hope to be there every step of the way.”