It was pitching that put the Pittsburgh Pirates into playoff contention this season. It was pitching that the Pirates strengthened at the trade deadline when they acquired Wandy Rodriguez from the Houston Astros. And it’s pitching that’s now threatening to be the reason for the demise. The Pirates have been hit hard in the second half of the season, especially in the month of August and today in Milwaukee I saw it carry into September firsthand, as the Brewers hung twelve runs on the board and won a 12-8 slugfest. What’s going on here?
James McDonald, the starter that Milwaukee chased today, is a microcosm of the staff. He was All-Star caliber and a dark horse Cy Young candidate in the first half of the season. For his five starts in August he posted a 4.45 ERA and averaged less than six innings each time out. Each subpar number got worse this afternoon at Miller Park.
A.J. Burnett was supposed to be a veteran stabilizer, the one with postseason experience from having helped win a World Series in New York in 2009. But Burnett’s five August outings have produced a 5.18 ERA. Then we move to Rodriguez, who finally came up big earlier this week when he shut out St. Louis. But even with that gem as part of his August resume, the overall numbers still show a 4.05 ERA in five starts.
And Erik Bedard? The veteran who joined McDonald and Burnett in giving the Pirates a solid 1-2-3 trio at the top of the rotation has again seen his career come undone. After watching him hammered for a 5.91 ERA in four August starts, Pittsburgh cut him loose this last week and gave his job to Kevin Correia. The latter has a 4.01 ERA in August in three starts and three relief appearances.
The only starter with a sub-4.00 ERA over the last month is Jeff Karstens, and not by much. Karstens is at 3.90 in six times to the post.
These numbers get more discouraging in context. The Pirates’ starters ERA for August ranks 10th in the National League—and if the entire staff ranks 13th, that tells you something about how bad the bullpen has been. Furthermore, the NL Central is the division with woeful lineups like the Astros, Cubs and normally the Brewers shouldn’t be as difficult to deal with as the Pirates made them look this weekend. In spite of this, the ERAs still balloon.
There’s no getting around the fact that Pittsburgh’s in trouble. The 2.5 game margin they face in the wild-card race is certainly manageable. But the St. Louis Cardinals, who lead the race for the last playoff spot have a rotation that’s coming together. The Los Angeles Dodgers can fall back on Clayton Kershaw and Josh Beckett could join him. The Cards and Dodgers are unlikely to have significant losing streaks. We can’t say that about the Pirates and it’s going to take all of manager Clint Hurdle’s savvy to push this team into October.