Bob Smizik: Pirates hopes alive, but barely

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For teams with championship aspirations, four-game losing streaks are not ideal in early September. That's where the Pirates stand today after being swept by the St. Louis Cardinals. The finale will not be an easy one to overcome, a 1-0 loss with the game's only run coming in the last of the ninth with two outs.

On a more positive note, the Pirates' next 13 games are against teams with losing records -- the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox. Those teams are in last place in their respective divisions. They are not, however, playing like last-place teams. The Phillies have won seven of their past 10, the Cubs six of 10 and the Red Sox five of 10.

The Pirates are in third place in the NL Central, five games behind St. Louis. That is pretty much an insurrmountable lead. Prospects are somewhat better in the wild-card standings. San Francisco is in first by a healthy margin, but the PIrates, who are fourth, trail Milwaukee by two games and Atlanta by 1 1/2.

Since only two wild-card teams make the postseason, the Pirates must catch both Milwaukee, which is playing horrible, and Atlanta.

Sensing the importance of yesterday's game, manager Clint Hurdle veered from his usual bullpen strategy. He brought in Tony Watson to replace starter Edinson Volquez in the seventh. Watson pitched out of that trouble and turned the game over to closer Mark Melancon in the eighth. Melancon retired the Cardinals on eight pitches and that brought him back out for the ninth. He retired the first two batters, but a walk and two singles ended the game.

The Pirates, as expected, have been good enough to hang around playoff contention all season. They do not appear to be good enough, though, to do more than hang around. But the opportunity is there. It's just that the chances are not good.

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