Pirates’ playoff hopes hinge on pitching staff going forward

Gerrit Cole and fellow Pirate hurlers must improve if their club is to see the postseason. Cole is just 10-8 this season after earning a no decision on Wednesday at Milwaukee, giving up four earned in six innings. | Courtesy of Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

David Borne | Staff Writer 

Just a little over a month and a half remain in the MLB’s regular season, and with the playoff race in full swing, the Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves in a familiar position. With a record hovering right below the .500 mark (58-62) and sitting several games out of a playoff spot, Pittsburgh now faces another uphill battle in working to find their way toward the postseason.

While Pittsburgh’s chances of landing one of the two National League Wild Card spots are slim-to-none, they trail the NL Central-leading Chicago Cubs by only five games. With an eight-game home stand ahead of them and with 32 of their 42 remaining games against division rivals, do the Pirates have what it takes to return to the postseason?

Gridlocked in a tight four-team divisional race, the Pirates are one extended hot streak removed from pulling away from the rest of the division. The 2011 Boston Red Sox, who led the AL East by nine games in September yet failed to reach the postseason after an abysmal final stretch, are proof that at this point in the year, no lead or deficit is too secure.

The Pirates are certainly capable of making the postseason, but it all comes down to how well their pitching staff can hold up down the stretch.

The Pirates rank in the bottom five in the league in runs scored per game (4.17), which places much pressure on their pitching staff. Gerrit Cole has been solid this season, although he did have a rough patch in June. Perhaps the Pirates’ best move this past offseason was the re-signing of Ivan Nova, as he has been better than expected. However, even he has regressed recently, and inconsistency has plagued the Pirates’ other starting pitchers, as well.

Jameson Taillon started the year off great, triumphantly returning from testicular cancer surgery, but since the start of July, opposing hitters have had the right-hander’s number. Since July 4, his ERA has jumped from 2.73 to 4.50. However, Taillon’s two most recent outings suggest that he is settling in again. He has pitched a combined 12.1 innings, giving up 11 hits and allowing just four earned runs in two wins. A continued resurgence from Taillon is essential if the Pirates wish to advance beyond the regular season.

Behind Taillon remain the hard-throwing Chad Kuhl and rookie Trevor Williams. Williams has rounded out Ray Searage’s pitching rotation perfectly for the Pirates, but Kuhl could be used more effectively. His fastball comes in at an average speed of 95.62 MPH and has touched 99 MPH on the radar gun at certain points this season. Kuhl’s repertoire also includes a sinker, slider and a curveball. He has had quality starts, but I sense that Pittsburgh would benefit from using Kuhl out of the bullpen.

Kuhl could replace the recently acquired Joaquin Benoit, who struggled in Philadelphia this season and hasn’t benefited from the change of scenery since being traded to Pittsburgh at the deadline. Williams could move to the fourth spot in the rotation and Steven Brault, who has a 1.94 ERA in 120.1 innings with AAA Indianapolis, could take over the fifth starting spot.

Last year’s Cleveland Indians showed the value of having a shutdown bullpen, and having Kuhl setup for Felipe Rivero could be a nightmare for the opposition down the stretch.

With a slow start this season, the Pirates’ playoff hopes looked dim early on. Nevertheless, here they are. Another mediocre season, another hopeful push for October baseball. It’ll only happen if this pitching staff can consistently produce over the last month and a half of the season — and if the Pirates can score enough runs to support their arms.

With outfielder Gregory Polanco recently placed on the disabled list for the third time this season and on the heels of a four-game losing streak, other Pirates will need to increase their production down the stretch if the Pirates are to see October.

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