Starling Marte hits a home run off Cubs relief pitcher Kevin Gregg in the ninth inning.
By Bob Smizik Special to the Post-Gazette
What a sweet way to enter the playoffs: another sterling performance by a starting pitcher, an unexpected but most heartening Starling home run.
It's easy to become overly excited about the Pirates now that they've put the cherry on top of this wholly unexpected season. It's true they are not winning with any degree of solid regularity these days, but their starting rotation, with the exception of the now-removed Jeff Locke, in on an exceptional run as the postseason draws near.
The game-winning home run in the ninth inning by Starling Marte, who entered the game as a defensive replacement, is of equal significance to the strong starting pitching. Jose Tabata has played well above expectations -- better than Marte had been playing -- but, as is well known, Tabata is no Marte.
It remains to be determined when Marte will be returned to the starting lineup. With Tabata on an 0-for-7 run, it could well be tonight. The no-doubt-about it home run would strongly indicate Marte's hand, if not 100 percent, is well enough for him to start playing regularly.
Marte's return will put the Pirates at full strength for the first time since the rosters expanded Sept. 1 and since the acquisitions of Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau. As well as Tabata has performed, Marte brings too much to the team to be sitting on the sidelines. His defensive excellence, his speed on the bases, his power potential, his ability to ignite the lineup from the leadoff spot make the Pirates a better team.
Whether they finish second or third -- or first -- the Pirates are positioned to be successful in the postseason. Of course, they are positioned -- as are all teams -- to lose in their first round.
This postseason berth has a special ring of sweetness to it. The first winning season since 1992 was capped by a playoff spot and comes after a start which had almost everyone predicting another losing season.
Hard to remember, but the Pirates opened with a 1-5 record and the critics were out in full force and the skeptics were, too. Looking back at those games, it's interesting to note the scores of the first five losses: 3-1, 3-2, 3-0, 1-0, 6-2. Those were the Pirates we've come to know and respect: strong pitching, not-so strong hitting.
From that 1-5 start the Pirates went to 13-9 -- a 12-4 record -- and rolled from there. By the time they were 26 games over .500 on Aug. 8, they had played at a 69-39 pace since their 1-5 start. That's .639 baseball, which is a 103-win pace.
Few teams, certainly not this one, can be expected to play at that pace for an entire season. The Pirates have played .500 baseball since the end of July, not the stuff of postseason success.
But still, they are primed for the postseason. The bullpen is faltering a bit, but they have the deepest and best lineup they've had all year and the kind of starting pitching that can enable a team to flourish in the playoffs. The starters -- Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton -- have been excellent in their recent outings. As a group, they are peaking at precisely the right time.
There's still five drama-filled games to be played in the regular season with first place still within reach. But this team has the capability of stretching that five and then the sixth to considerably more.