Pirates' Gerrit Cole pitches against the Braves at PNC Park Wednesday night.
By Bob Smizik / Special to Post-Gazette
One win in a 162-game season means next to nothing -- even when it ends a seven-game losing streak. So those looking for some sort of magic in the Pirates' 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves are reaching for something that simply is not there.
There’s no momentum in baseball. Or, as has been said, a team’s momentum is only as good as its next-day starter.
Still, this was a sweet one. The Pirates tied the game, 2-2, in the eighth and won it in the ninth on a sacrifice fly by Gaby Sanchez. With the return to the active roster of Gerrit Cole, who pitched an impressive seven innings, the Pirates are pretty much at full strength for the first time in six weeks.
In fact, with Cole’s return, they might have the best team they’ve had all season. Pedro Alvarez has been supplanted at third base by Josh Harrison and Travis Snider, at least temporarily, is the starting right fielder over Gregory Polanco. Those two additions to the starting lineup make the Pirates offense, which has been a team strength, even stronger.
They will need all of that and possibly more as the schedule does not ease up. After an off day today, they play three at Milwaukee. After that, it’s six at home against St. Louis and Cincinnati and then three at St. Louis.
Aside from the much-needed win, Cole’s return was the story of the game for the Pirates. He limited the Braves to two runs on five hits, while walking four and striking out six in his first start since July 4. This does not mean he’s back as the dominant starter he was late last sesaon, but it was an encouraging sign.
It will be interesting to see how manager Clint Hurdle plays his lineup in the days ahead. He has said on at least one occasion that Harrison is his third baseman. He’s not said the same thing about Snider and right field. But, really, he has not choice.
Snider had two more hits last night and threw out a runner at home plate in the sixth inning. Since May 31, he’s batting .331 with an OPS of about .925. His 10 RBIs in August are tied for the team lead. He has thoroughly outplayed Polanco, who's in a deep slump, and deserves the vast majority of the playing time until he proves otherwise.
It’s quite a success story for Snider, who many felt would not even last the season with the Pirates, let alone become one of their most important players. Whether this is the real deal remains to be determined because Snider has flubbed so many previous chances. It has not been for a lack of talent. He was a high-end prospect who was in MLB at age 20 in 2008.
He has a lot to prove -- and that’s what he’s doing.
Third base isn’t quite so clear cut. Harrison is in a bit of a slump -- 6-for-35 -- but he should not be close to losing his job to Alvarez. His near-miracle season has included other stretches where his offense declined, but he’s always come back to find his stroke. But the temptation to use Alvarez, even with his throwing issues, remains a factor. Finding Alvarez playing time, either at third base or first base, remains a challenge for Hurdle.
The team challenge for the Pirates is to go into Milwaukee, where their lack of success is well known, and win two out of three. Such a showing would keep their slim hopes of catching the Brewers alive and would probably help them in the wild-card standings, where they are fourth, two games back.
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