MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Pirates show Cards they're closing gap

Nicasio helps Pittsburgh sweep three-game series

Pirates show Cards they're closing gap

PITTSBURGH -- As first impressions of a season go, the Pittsburgh Pirates would seem to have closed the narrow space between themselves and the St. Louis Cardinals.

In fact, based on what occurred in the season-opening three-game series between the clubs at PNC Park, the Bucs may have taken the lead in this intense but respectful rivalry.

The Pirates swept the series with a 5-1 victory Wednesday night. Their play here was never less than solid and at times was superb.

Nicasio dazzles as Pirates sweep Cardinals

The results were so positive, against the team that has been their primary roadblock, that Bucs manager Clint Hurdle took time to note that there should be no surprise involved, that his players were no strangers to success.

"I don't think we'll ever surprise ourselves when we play well," Hurdle said. "We're past that point. We expect to play well.

"We met the challenge the first series of the season, we'll get on a plane [Thursday] and go to Cincinnati and meet the next challenge."  

A three-game series is the picture of a small sample size. For the larger picture, check out the regular-season results since the beginning of the 2013 season. The Pirates are 30-30 against the Cardinals in that period. 

That is competitive balance, between teams that have competed at the highest level. But the Pirates could be forgiven if they still felt their situation relative to the Cardinals was something of an uphill climb.

Over the past three seasons, the Bucs had the second-best record in baseball with 280 victories. The Cards had the best record with 287.

In 2015, the Pirates had the second-best record in the Majors with 98 victories. The Cardinals had the best record with 100. 

The Bucs have finished in second place in the National League Central in each of the past three seasons. The Cards have won the division each of those years. 

The Pirates won the NL Wild Card Game in 2013, only to be defeated by the Cardinals in a very competitive NL Division Series. The next two years, the Bucs were defeated in the NL Wild Card Game. The Cards, meanwhile, advanced to one World Series, one NL Championship Series and one NL Division Series.

But if the Cardinals are clearly among baseball's elite teams, that 30-30 record tells you that the Pirates are in the same neighborhood.

The difference between these two teams is that the Pirates have had more than enough trouble with other opponents in the NL Central. The Bucs, for instance, are 28-29 since 2013 against the Brewers. The Cards, over the same period, are 39-18 against Milwaukee.

But despite second place looking like home, Pittsburgh's overall direction is still upward.

The Pirates have a talented farm system, and they supplement it with astute acquisitions. Hurdle has been both relentless and successful in his efforts to maximize the talents on his roster. And it has become clear that pitching coach Ray Searage is one of the very best in the game, even if he persistently tries to avoid taking credit.

All of these aspects were at work Wednesday night in the case of Pittsburgh's starting pitcher, Juan Nicasio. He spent most of his Major League career with the Rockies, in the big leagues' most difficult spot for pitchers. Nicasio signed as a free agent with the Bucs in a move that drew minimal attention. 

Wednesday night, though, Nicasio was a big, hard-throwing pitcher with very good stuff, who stifled the Cardinals over six innings, giving up one run on just two hits, with no walks and seven strikeouts.

"I try to be happy and make a good pitch," Nicasio said.

Nicasio succeeded so well in this effort that he made a whole clubhouse happy.

You could minimize the importance of this series, or rationalize the results. The Cards had four players go on the disabled list in the past week, and that didn't include one of their most essential players, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who was already injured.

"Sometimes it's not who you play but when you play them," Hurdle generously noted.

But at the end of this opening series, the Pirates had achieved the maximum lead that three games would allow. Of course, it won't always go this way when these clubs meet. Still, by now, the available evidence says the competition between these teams, so close in recent seasons, may be getting even closer.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.