September is for winners.
The Pirates have been on a blazing trail of victories, notching their fourth consecutive series win on Saturday night with a 6-3 decision over the Marlins. A lot has gone wrong for the Bucs this season, but as they approach the final two weeks of the season, a ton is going right.
The team will go for its first series sweep of the season on Sunday in its 15th try. Even if they come up short like they have time and time again, the Pirates are encouraged by their signs of growth.
The Bucs were swept out of Chicago as the calendar turned from August to September, but even then, there were signs that things were getting better. A lot of it came down to routine plays not being routine for their steady defense, and they lost all six games by three runs or fewer.
What’s gone right since then?
The thing manager Derek Shelton has pointed to time and time again is the relievers providing great relief. From Sept. 6 until Saturday, the Pirates were one of nine teams with a bullpen ERA under 3.00.
That’s big, especially when the Pirates’ young and injury-affected six-man rotation is typically going five or fewer innings, as Bryse Wilson (two runs allowed in five innings) did on Saturday night, in part due to a hamstring cramp. Yet only one run scored against the bullpen in the series winner vs. Miami.
“I feel like we’ve done a good job when the ball’s delivered to us, whether it be early or a little bit later in the game,” said Chris Stratton, who struck out three for the save on Friday. “Just trying to keep it right where it’s at and trying to give our team the best chance to win.”
The offense is coming along, too. The Pirates aren’t putting up eye-popping numbers, but they’ve put up at least five runs in nine of their 16 games this September. This comes after the club dismissed hitting coach Rick Eckstein at the end of August and has since moved to a collaborative instructional unit for the rest of the season.
“I do think the one thing we’ve been more consistent on is our approach, and I give those guys credit,” Shelton said. “I think we’ve put a little bit more of an emphasis on that.”
They may not be putting up double-digit hits night in and night out, but from Sept. 6 until Saturday’s win, the Pirates’ offense was the most clutch in the National League statistically if you go by FanGraphs’ “Clutch” calculation.
It makes sense: Five of the team’s past seven wins have come by one run, including two walk-offs. Not everything was pretty on Saturday -- a couple of botched bunts and an easy caught stealing with runners on the corners and two outs in the seventh -- but thanks to that consistent approach that is paying off in runs scored, it didn’t come back to bite the Pirates.
And had Miami not gifted the Pirates their first three runs on a wild pitch and a dropped third out in shallow right field, it would have been -- you guessed it -- another one-run game heading into the ninth inning.
“I think as you see guys mature and teams get better, they win those games because they learn how to win them,” Shelton said. “It’s an important trait, and I’m happy with the development that we’ve had.”
It also helps when the defense plays to its capabilities. It was costly for the Marlins on Saturday, but the Pirates showcased why they have an NL-best 65 errors this season.
Sure, the Pirates are hungry to get their first sweep Sunday. They’d join small company if they go without one this season. But there is a lot of all-around encouragement to be taken from the past couple of weeks.
This young Pirates team has taken notice, too, and they’re pushing one another as they head into the final stretch.
“How can I get better?” said Hoy Park, who hit a two-run triple on Saturday. “That’s what we’re talking about every day in the cage and on the field. So I think that’s really healthy chatter. We just want to keep going.”