Bucs confident of playoff push post-Melancon

Bucs confident of playoff push post-Melancon

MILWAUKEE -- In discussing the Pirates' reasons for trading closer Mark Melancon on Saturday afternoon, manager Clint Hurdle cited the need to be optimistic and realistic.

Hurdle, who turned 59 on Saturday, is both. He optimistically stressed that the Pirates haven't lowered their standards; they still want to win the division. But he realistically understood that Melancon still may have been a Pirate on Saturday night if the Bucs were closer to the Cubs in the National League Central standings.

Instead, on a day both the Cubs and Cardinals lost, the Pirates gained no ground in either the division or NL Wild Card races. They lost, 5-3, to the Brewers. They are 9 1/2 games behind the Cubs and three games behind the Marlins and Cardinals for the second Wild Card spot.

"There could be a different conversation if we were in first place," Hurdle said. "You need to be hopeful. You also need to deal with the facts. I think that's what they're very good about in here."

One of the reasons the Pirates held on to Melancon last offseason was their desire to win the division after appearing in three straight win-or-go-home Wild Card Games and their belief that they were capable of doing so.

But here they are, heading into the season's final two months and still well out of first place. Even a prolonged stretch of mediocrity by the Cubs, who are 15-21 since June 20, hasn't opened the door for the Pirates.

Asked why the Pirates dealt Melancon before the non-waiver Trade Deadline instead of during the winter, general manager Neal Huntington referred to the return, setup reliever Felipe Rivero and pitching prospect Taylor Hearn, but also "where we are."

"It's where we were sitting last offseason, with our intent to win a division," Huntington said. "We sit here with our intent to win a division, but the reality is there are wins and losses that have been banked so far this year. In November or December, they hadn't been."

The Pirates couldn't bank a win Saturday. Their starting pitching continued to improve, with Jameson Taillon following Gerrit Cole's complete-game gem and Steven Brault's quality start with six innings of two-run, walk-free ball.

But their bullpen allowed three runs in two innings, and their lineup churned out only one run before Gregory Polanco homered in the eighth and Jordy Mercer singled home another run with two outs in the ninth inning.

The Pirates have banked 10 fewer wins than the Cubs and four fewer than the Cardinals with 60 games remaining. Those odds are far from insurmountable, of course, but still reason enough to be realistic while remaining optimistic.

"We're still scratching and clawing and trying to get where we want to be, and that's to win this division," newly appointed closer Tony Watson said. "We've got a big piece missing now. We've got big shoes to fill, and we'll try our best to do it."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.