Somehow, after a seven-game September losing streak and a rough month-long stretch, the Pirates still had playoff hopes entering Saturday's game in Chicago. They were three games back of the St. Louis Cardinals for the second National League wild-card spot. Not even consecutive sweeps by the Cubs at home and the Cincinnati Reds this past week could definitively knock them out of the race, nor could an 8-21 record in their previous 29 games heading into Saturday's game at Wrigley Field.
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"Sure, we would have liked to play better in this stretch," Alex Presley said. "The fact that we're still right there is reassuring. To know if we finish strong, we got a good shot."
Finishing strong won't be easy, given how the Pirates have lost in recent weeks. They scored 14 combined runs during the sweeps by the Cubs and Reds, an average of 2.33 runs per game. They squandered a one-out triple when the Reds guessed right on a suicide squeeze and pitched out. They committed seven errors in one game against the Cubs. They threw a wild pitch that led to a run in each game of the Reds series.
"I'm encouraged by them understanding they're not happy that we're where we are," manager Clint Hurdle said. "But we're still fighting. We still got an opportunity in front of us."
Part of the recent offensive issues resulted from the absence of Neil Walker, who until pinch-hittting Friday in the first game of the Cubs series, had not played since Aug. 26 because of continued lower back pain. Walker, a mainstay in the middle of the order, was hitting .280 with a .435 slugging percentage, 14 home runs and 27 doubles entering the weekend.
He has progressed steadily, first fielding, then hitting right-handed before taking left-handed swings. The pain, he said, was concentrated in his left lower back.
"There have already been a number of things done for Neil and with Neil as far as being aggressive and smart and doing all the appropriate things you would do with a guy in the situation he's got," Hurdle said.
This year, according to Fangraphs.com, Walker was worth 3.3 wins above a hypothetical replacement-level player. In the case of the Pirates, though, that replacement at second base has been Brock Holt, who entered the Cubs series hitting .364 in his first 11 games.
In the 16 games Walker has not started, the Pirates scored an average of 3.8 runs per game, about a third of a run below their season average. They were 5-11 in those games.
If Walker returns and helps pull the Pirates out of their current tailspin, they may enter a convoluted tiebreaking system where several equations will determine who they play and where they play.
The Atlanta Braves had a five-game lead on the Cardinals, who held the second wild card spot entering the weekend. The Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies are all chasing the Cardinals for the second spot.
If two teams tie for the second wild card spot, they play a one-game playoff tentatively scheduled for Oct. 4, the day after the regular season ends. Head-to-head winning percentage acts as the first tiebreaker for home-field advantage. That hurts the Pirates in the case of the Dodgers and Brewers, who each have won the season series thus far against the Pirates, but the Pirates have the better record against the Cardinals and Phillies.
Things really get fun if three teams tie for the second spot, especially if they all have identical records against each other. Division and second-half league records then come into play, and it's possible that counting backward one game at a time into first-half league play could separate the teams. The scenario would require two tiebreaker games before the wild-card game itself.
Looking ahead: Brewers
Lagging in the middle of the NL Central pack through mid-August, the Milwaukee Brewers have made a furious push for the playoffs.
They come to PNC Park for a three-game series beginning Tuesday off a stretch in which they had won 7 of 10 games entering the weekend to pull within 31/2 games of the Cardinals.
They also ranked first in the NL in runs per game at 4.80. As a team, they have hit 32 points better -- .277, up from .245 -- in the second half of the season. Their 148 runs in August ranked second-best in the NL.
Ryan Braun, the 2011 NL MVP, has led the resurgence. His 38 home runs led the NL entering the weekend. The improvement of Rickie Weeks has helped as well. Weeks hit .199 before the All-Star break but has hit .273 with 11 home runs since then.
Despite trading ace Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels before the trade deadline, the Brewers' staff ERA and runs allowed have improved slightly. Righty Marco Estrada had a 1.52 ERA in his past five starts entering the weekend and had struck out 38 batters compared to six walks during 292/3 innings in that span.