(Opening image credit psfwallpapers)
With the Pittsburgh Pirates’ memorable postseason loss to eventual World Series runner up St. Louis now a month behind fans, this writer can finally get over the sting to hammer out some hopefully objective thoughts over the Buccos’ star performers- and unfortunate disappointments- from the franchise’s first postseason appearance in 21 years.
Pittsburgh Pirates’ Postseason Heroes
#1 Pedro Alvarez: During a 6-game playoff run that saw many offensive regulars struggle, Alvarez shined, and finally looked like the legit middle-of-the-order power threat many fans expected him to be when GM Neal Huntington drafted the 6’3″ lefty 2nd overall out of Vanderbilt in 2008. Alvarez reached base at an insane .421 clip- and keep in mind, the thirdbaseman’s OBP was below .300 in the regular season- hit 3 home runs, batted in 6, and finished the short campaign with a 1.362 OPS, which was among the top 3 in the postseason when the Pirates were eliminated. El Toro did everything he could to come up huge in the biggest games of his young career.
#2 Gerrit Cole: Finishing with a 1-1 record and 2.45 ERA, Manager Clint Hurdle called on the rookie fireballer in 2 of the 3 most high-stakes games of the postseason. Debuting in St. Louis in Game 2 of the NLDS, with the Pirates already down 1 game to 0 after a 9-1 browbeating in game 1, Cole could’ve easily flustered, and the Pirates would’ve faced the very real prospect of being swept in 3 by the Cardinals. But the righty allowed only 2 hits through 6IP in earning the series-changing win. The former #1 overall pick was called upon 5 days later in the high-stakes Game 5 finale, and hung with Cardinals’ ace Adam Wainright, allowing only 2 runs through 5 innings, before arguably being pulled prematurely by Hurdle- at which point the game got out of hand.
Flashing a 100mph fastball even into the middle innings, hopefully this is the first of many Pirate postseasons for Cole.
#3 Francisco Liriano: Garnering the Pirates their historic first postseason victory in 21 years with a masterful Wild Card performance against the Cincinnati Reds, Liriano also had a strong outing in Game 3 against the Cardinals, allowing only 2 runs over 6 innings before ceding the game- and eventual victory- to the Pirates’ bullpen. There was no postseason let up from the NL Comeback Player of the Year, and Pirates’ fans hope Liriano can anchor a possibly A.J. Burnett-free rotation into 2014.
#4 Marlon Byrd: One of the Pirates’ August waiver period acquisitions, the former Met showed that his 2013 regular season was no aberration, hitting a vital home run in the Wild Card contest, and following that with a productive series against the Cardinals. His first postseason appearance ever, the 35-year old OPS’d a phenomenal .928 overall, and .813 against the Red Birds. Usually hitting from the 5-spot in the lineup, Byrd did everything in his power to will the Pirates on to the next round, finishing with a .364 batting average, .391 OBP, 1 HR, and 5 RBI.
Pittsburgh Pirates Postseason Goats
#1 Neil Walker: Certainly a disappointment from one of Pittsburgh’s own, Walker followed a strong 2-5, 1 2B, 1 RBI Wild Card game against the Reds with an utterly brutal NLDS against the Cardinals, in which the switch-hitting secondbaseman went 0-19, only reaching base twice via a walk. Hitting out of the 2-spot the entire series, Walker did little to set the table for the Pirates’ middle of the order, and with no consistent 2B backup (outside of perhaps Jordy Mercer), manager Hurdle could do little but run Walker out for every game, hoping the former 1st round pick would snap out of his slump. Unfortunately, the “Pittsburgh Kid” didn’t.
#2 Starling Marte: The top of the Pirates’ lineup was saddled with hitters that couldn’t reach base, which is normally a death sentence in a ho-hum regular season game, let alone the NL playoffs. After a similar quality 2-5, 1 2B Wild Card contest against the Reds, Marte became mired in the same NLDS slump as Walker. The former Dave Littlefield signing finished 1-21 with a forgettable .353 OPS. And unlike Walker, there was a capable backup for Marte in the hot-hitting Jose Tabata, but Tabata didn’t help his own cause by finishing 0-4 scattered over 4 games against the Cards.
#3 Andrew McCutchen: It may seem surprising to see the NL MVP candidate make the “goats” list, and I’ve certainly drawn some ire from friends that are Pirates’ fans for suggesting it. And in fairness to McCutchen, not only did he turn in a 2-3, 2 BB performance against the Reds, but he finished with an .842 postseason OPS overall, which is certainly very good. Further, due to the disastrous performances of Marte and Walker hitting in front of him, the former 1st round pick of the Pirates rarely had marquee RBI opportunities.
However, with all of PNC Park chanting “MVP! MVP!” throughout the months of August and September, expectations for McCutchen to rise to the task in the NLDS were certainly higher than any other player on the team. And unfortunately, the fan favorite faltered. The dreadlocked face of the franchise- and perhaps even MLB- finished with a pedestrian .714 OPS. He had 0 HR, 0 RBI, and only 1 extra base hit in 21 AB- and was promptly picked off of 2nd base in a bad baserunning gaffe a batter later. He missed a golden opportunity to cement his MVP status against Cardinals’ RP Trevor Rosenthal with 2 out in the bottom of the 9th of a 2-1 loss in Game 4, and went 0-4 during the vital Game 5 elimination contest.
In fairness to Marte, Walker, and McCutchen, had the 3 not performed as well as they did in the Wild Card game against the Reds, perhaps fans aren’t even having a conversation about a series with the Cardinals, and are still dwelling on Sid Bream’s slide in 1992 instead (although Russell Martin’s 2-HR performance against the Reds could’ve almost single-handedly won the game). Frankly, it’s a huge credit to the Pirates that they took it the Cardinals to the wire after receiving so little overall from the top of the lineup.
#4 Justin Morneau: The Pirates’ other August acquisition, Morneau showed little of the flash of fellow trade reinforcement Marlon Byrd. Following up a disappointing .681 OPS September campaign with the Pirates, Morneau showed little of the power that allowed him to hit 9 HR in August while still a member of the Minnesota Twins. Hitting a fairly empty .300 in the postseason, Morneau had 0 HR, 0 RBI, and only 1 extra base hit in 24 AB. Fans kept sliding out to the edges of their seats, waiting for Morneau to break out in the cleanup spot, but it never happened. It’s a shame, because Morneau is a class act, and was one of the most well-established hitters on the 2013 postseason lineup. His brief tenure in Pittsburgh should’ve ended better.
Overall, it was an amazing 6 games, and a delight for long-suffering Pirates’ fans to behold. Clearly, a different team will take the field in 2014 than the one that finally left the field in St. Louis in an epic 5-game battle. But the 2013 Pirates will always hold an important place in the hearts of fans that willed this franchise through two decades of the darkest times in North American sports history. Here’s to many postseason articles to come. Thanks for reading.
(Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug)