Way downriver Friday night, the Pirates play the first of their remaining 69 games at the front of a weekend series against the National League Central Division neighbors they admire least, the Cincinnati Reds.
There is enough suspicion and rancor and tangible bruising from the purposeful pitches of both teams over the past two summers that these beginning episodes of the so-called second half need no elaborate backdrop for dramatic purposes.
But, with another entire day to endure before the merciful expiration of an All-Star break that always seems too long, the bigger picture remains in focus, dominated by this two-part question: How many of the 69 games left can the Pirates win, and what are the implications of the sum total of X plus 56, the number occupying the win column at the moment?
I've got four fateful numbers in mind, after careful consideration, and, as ever, once I commit them to public record, the odds against any of them being correct are about 5,000-1.
Five thousand-to-one, by the way, are the exact odds against the Miami Marlins winning the World Series, according to the sports betting site Bovada, which lists the Pirates at 16-1, behind National League representatives St. Louis (7-1), Atlanta (8-1), Los Angeles (9-1), and Cincinnati (15-1).
I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure that to win the World Series, you have to actually be in it, but that already has been taken care of, judging from some of the chatter around the Pirates. I've heard at least twice that the series between the Pirates the A's might have been a World Series preview (spoiler alert: the A's won) and that it would be great if the Pirates were in the World Series against the Boston Red Sox because those were the two teams in the first World Series in 1903.
And for every clairvoyant who believes that Pirates will turn up in the World Series, there are two or three who are pretty sure they will be in the playoffs. The next Sports Illustrated that finds its way to your mailbox will have Pirates hammer Jason Grilli on its cover, glowering next to this remarkable mouthful:
The Strangest but Truest Story of the Summer -- The Playoff-Bound Pirates and Their Sharknado Bullpen.
Well that's a movie, allegedly. Haven't seen it, but I doubt it's a remake of "My Dinner With Andre."
But my reaction wasn't "Sharknado?"
Mine was the full Mora: "Playoffs?! Playoffs?!"
You can put Clint Hurdle in the manager of the year discussion without fear of any blowback cackling, and you can even put National League executive of the year and Neal Huntington in the same sentence without anyone arranging an intervention, but a lot can happen to these promising Pirates between Friday night and Sept. 29, when the second half ends where it begins, in Cincinnati.
So how many will the Pirates win, total, 2013?
Here are the four numbers in my head:
>*** 80 ***
You heard me. That means a second half record of 24-45. If you don't think even the Pirates are capable of 24-45, perhaps you've forgotten the 19-39 finish of 2012. Pitching is the element that supposedly has erected the firewall against another sub-.500 record, but suppose for a moment that A.J. Burnett completes a full season in which the Pirates provide him with no offense, suppose that Wandy Rodriguez does not escape the disabled list, suppose that Charlie Morton embarks on a month of ineffectiveness, and suppose the performances of All-Stars Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli fall back into the earth's orbit, all while the offense persists with its convincing impersonation of the Chicago Cubs on muscle relaxers.
*** 86 ***
The 20-years-of-losing thing ends after a 30-39 second half, caused by inconsistent offense and aggravated by management's decision to Strasburg left-handed starter Jeff Locke and rookie Gerrit Cole. Both figure to be way over their innings total from 2012. Locke, another All-Star who is scheduled to start Sunday, is already at 109 innings. He threw 341/3 in 2012.
Do I know exactly what happens to pitchers who are 25 or younger and whose innings quadruple within 12 months? No, but you can be sure Huntington does.
*** 91 ***
Reachable with a mere 35-34 record beginning Friday night, 91-71 seems to me the most likely of my phantom four. It allows for natural correction for a soon-to-be-weary pitching staff and for a slight-to-moderate improvement of an offense that could be sparked by one of Huntington's deadline moves.
Does 91 put you in the playoffs? As Socrates might have said to Plato, "Depends."
*** 96 ***
The Pirates would top out, in this view, with a 40-29 second half, meaning 96-66 is the coalescent optimum of all factors. It means Neil Walker returns very soon and hits very well. It means Andrew McCutchen makes a hard run at 25 homers. It means Garrett Jones makes a hard run at 20. It means Pedro Alvarez drives in more than 100 runs, becoming the first Pirates player in seven years to do so. It means, more compelling, that the club's best-in-baseball pitching actually holds up. It means a minimum of bad baseball luck, and that means what we all think it means -- no more midnight rides by the Parrot in those SpongeBob SquarePants jammies.
Gene Collier: email@example.com. First Published July 18, 2013 4:00 AM