Tonight kicks off a four-game series between the Pirates and the Cardinals. Normally, a series in mid-July isn’t described as pivotal, but this one very well may have that descriptor attached to it. Entering tonight, the Pirates trail the Cardinals by 4-1/2 games in the division. The Pirates have the second best record in all of MLB (50-34), but have the misfortune of playing in the same division as the team with the best record in MLB, the Cardinals.
As a result, the Pirates have been confined to hoping for home field advantage in the NL Wild Card game again. However, in recent weeks the worm has turned ever so slightly. The Pirates are streaking in their last 10 (8-2), while the Cardinals are stumbling (4-6). Perhaps the Cardinals are finally regressing back to the levels expected of a team without Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, and Matt Adams. Maybe we’re seeing a team coming back down to earth.
This series is important not only for the direct impact on the standings, but also for what direction the Pirates may take at the upcoming July 31st trade deadline. Let’s look at some scenarios based on the potential outcomes of this series:
- Pirates sweep the 4-game series — This would put the Pirates just a 1/2 game behind the Cards heading into the All-Star Break. At this point, I imagine that the brain trust on Federal Street will get the financial go-ahead to go full bore with whatever move is necessary to secure the division. The division title gets the Pirates out of the virtual coin-flip that is the Wild Card game.
- Pirates win 3 out of 4 games — This puts the Pirates 2-1/2 behind heading into the break. Optimism would be high and I think Neal Huntington and crew would pursue an “85% committed” strategy.
- Pirates and Cards split the series — In this scenario, Pirates remain 4-1/2 games back. It may be somewhat deflating mentally to the Pirates that they couldn’t prevail over their main competition at home, in the midst of their hottest run of the season. Deals would still be pursued, but it may be for a Scott Kazmir-tier of player instead of a Johnny Cueto-tier.
- Cards win 3 out of 4 games — Now we’re getting into the depressing section. This puts the Pirates 6-1/2 games back and may move them closer in relation to the Cubs than expected. At this point, the Pirates may re-calibrate their decision making and not want to risk expending both financial and prospect resources just for the hope of getting to the Wild Card game. If too much is expended and the Pirates lose that game, it will have been a futile gesture.
- Cards sweep the 4-game series — Guard the bridges if this scenario happens, because all those wins the Pirates have accumulated since May 9th? Won’t matter a lick to the general Pirate fanbase. All the Eeyores and Chicken Littles will be back in full effect with the Pirates 8-1/2 games back. The Pirates would probably pursue smaller moves in an effort to stay afloat in the Wild Card chase.
All the stars (figuratively and literally) are aligned for this series. Jeff Locke opens the series tonight, coming off the best pitching performance of his career. Then the rotation turns over to Gerrit Cole – A.J. Burnett – Francisco Liriano. At this point in time, there are no other three pitchers I have more confidence in around the league than these three for the Pirates. And hey, the series isn’t in St. Louis, so Burnett won’t lay an egg against the Cardinals.
The ramifications for this series go far beyond July 9th to the 12th. It will affect the decision making up to July 31st, which will impact how the Pirates may look come October.