April Or Not, Those Were 'Must-Have' Games For The Pirates

Bucs can't lose on their expected strengths

Matt Koll
April 04, 2019 - 11:58 am
Bader homers off Keone Kela Wednesday

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll avoid the sports cliché of a “must-win game” because technically no game in April is a “must-win.”

If it were truly a must-win, a team would have to win that game or its season is over.

So let’s say “must have.”

Beyond the obvious that you want to win every night, Monday and Wednesday night’s games this week were “must have’s” for the Pirates if they want to contend this season.

Related: Cardinals Rally Past Pirates Again, 5-4 In 10 Innings

Yes, it’s only April and we’re only four games into the season but in an NL Central that figures to be tight all year, the Pirates can’t afford to fail at what their bread and butter is supposed to be this year. Especially when they’re facing one of those NL Central teams in the Cardinals.

What the Bucs set up for themselves over the past two games was their own recipe for wins. They followed the game plan perfectly, although a sixth scoreless inning from Chris Archer would have been helpful on Monday.

  1. Have the starting pitcher give up 2 runs or fewer over at least 6 innings
  2. Build a lead, ideally of multiple runs, while the starter is on the mound
  3. Use the supposedly strong, deep bullpen to preserve that lead
  4. Win the game.

Pirates president Frank Coonelly said so himself when he joined The Fan Morning Show before the 6-5 loss to the Cardinals on Opening Day at PNC Park.

"The great teams that win championships, it all starts with starting pitching and then a strong bullpen that makes sure you win those games that you have leads in late. We need to pitch extremely well. It's a strength of this team, we've talked about it as a strength, getting six, seven, eight innings out of a starter is critical because you can't continue to bring in the relief pitchers every single night. Although we have what I believe will be even a deeper core of relief pitchers coming in here.”

Before play on Thursday, the Pirates bullpen was ranked 23rd of 30 MLB teams in ERA at 5.79 (nine earned runs in 14 innings pitched).

It’s one thing to go up against a lineup like the Cardinals and have any combination of their sluggers like Paul Goldschimdt, Matt Carpenter or Marcell Ozuna have a great day, do some major damage and win the game 7-2.

It’s one thing to take Jameson Taillon’s start on Wednesday:  Seven innings, giving up just one run on three hits and see the Pirates lose 1-0 because the Bucco bats never woke up. Whether Taillon should have been taken out after the 7th inning after 85 pitches is a whole other can of worms, by the way. 

But it’s a completely different thing to have a four run lead after six innings on Monday and lose 6-5 in extra innings, only to follow that up by carrying a two run lead into the 8th inning on Wednesday and lose again in extras, 5-4.

That’s your strength letting you down.

That’s taking what is supposed to separate you from the congestion and vault you toward the top of the NL Central and failing at it.

The offense most likely isn’t going to carry the season. Certainly the defense isn’t likely to be reliable, either.

It’s the work out on the mound that will help the Pirates contend and 23rd out of 30 simply won’t cut it this year.

At this point you might be thinking, “Come on man, we’re four games into the season. Relax. It’s way too early.”

I do expect the bullpen to get better. I don’t expect them to sit in the bottom third of baseball all season.

I also realize that it’s April and there is a TON of baseball left to play.  

But each game counts the same. Especially in a division that may be won by just a game or two and in an NL Wild Card race that seemingly always comes down to a few games deciding whether you’re in or out each year  (ask the Cardinals who missed the playoffs by 3 games in 2018), each game is crucial.

April or not, the Pirates must not leave out an important variable to their winning formula and must have their strengths be…well…strengths.

I believe things will get better in the back end. The starting pitching to this point has been all it was billed to be. But if the Bucs contend all summer and ultimately fall short by a couple, even three games, their best components...their identity...wasn't strong enough.

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