Pirates' Wild Card hopes intact thanks to relievers' efforts
By Matt Kelly
After the Pirates were seemingly eliminated from contention for the National League Central division crown by mid-June, and fell below .500 with a swoon in early September, the temptation to write Pittsburgh off for the remainder of 2016 seemed somewhat logical. A season-ending injury to ace Gerrit Cole, along with trades of Francisco Liriano, Ivan Nova and closer Mark Melancon also helped to fuel the fire that the Bucs were finished.
But with just less than two weeks left in the season, a look at the standings shows that the Pirates aren't fully out of it yet -- and their players aren't giving up. Pittsburgh sits five games out of the second NL Wild Card after going 5-3 this past week. But with Cole shelved and Liriano and Nova gone, Pittsburgh has had to find new ways to get quality starting pitching, with mixed results. Bucs starters averaged just 4 1/3 innings per start last week, meaning the bullpen had to take on the majority of the work to lift the Pirates to their winning week.
At a time where every inning and every pitch matters, Pittsburgh's relievers proved up to the task. Not only did their collective performance keep the Bucs afloat -- it also was enough to earn them the Bullpen of the Week Award presented by The Hartford.
As part of the MLB Prevailing Moments program, each Monday throughout the 2016 season, MLB.com is honoring the "Bullpen of the Week presented by The Hartford." An industry-wide panel of MLB experts, including legendary stats guru Bill James, constructed a metric based on James' widely renowned game-score formula, to provide a weekly measurement of team-bullpen performance.
Here's how the Bullpen Rating System is compiled for each week. For reference, a weekly score of 100 is considered outstanding:
• Add 1.5 points for each out recorded
• Add 1.5 points for each strikeout
• Add 5 points for a save
• Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed
• Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed
• Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed
• Subtract 1 point for each walk
• Subtract 5 points for a blown save
Pirates relievers combined for a huge workload of 35 2/3 innings last week, an average of nearly 4 1/2 innings per game, and allowed just seven earned runs for a total score of 152. The Bucs' bullpen allowed 23 hits and walked 11 but struck out 41 batters. Closer Tony Watson and recent acquisition Wade LeBlanc combined for three saves.
It's the Pirates' third Bullpen of the Week Award this season -- tying the Yankees for the most of any team in the Majors. Here's one example of how Pittsburgh's relievers withstood adversity and succeeded despite unexpected circumstances:
The unexpected: Pittsburgh came into its road series opener with the last-place Reds on Friday looking to build momentum from a blowout victory the previous night in Philadelphia. Things got off to a rocky start, as Ryan Vogelsong found himself in trouble early and often. Vogelsong needed 91 pitches to get through 4 2/3 innings and left with runners on first and second with the game tied at four.
Left-hander Zach Phillips, making just his second appearance of the season, came in and promptly gave up a triple to Cincinnati's Scott Schebler, bringing in another two runs to put Pittsburgh down, 4-2.
When Bastardo induced a soft infield popup from Jose Peraza to close the bottom of the ninth, the score was tied at six. That meant an already overworked Pirates bullpen would need to work overtime. Luckily, Pittsburgh's offense surged ahead with three runs in the top of the 10th, setting up a save situation for Watson.
Watson's 13th save of the year was not his smoothest, as he began by serving up the first home run of rookie Steve Selsky's career. It was a towering shot that traveled a projected distance of 422.7 feet to the left-center-field seats, but Watson was undeterred. With the heart of the Reds' order coming up, Pittsburgh's closer dug in.
First, Watson struck out Joey Votto -- among the Majors' hottest hitters during the second half. Adam Duvall, a 2016 Home Run Derby participant, followed with a pop fly, sending Brandon Phillips to the plate with two outs. Phillips, who boasts a lifetime .309 average against Pittsburgh, appeared to extend Cincinnati's rally with a sinking liner to right field. Watson got an assist from teammate Josh Bell, however, as Bell made a sliding catch to preserve the extra-innings victory.
"We had an opportunity to stay in a game tonight and battle back and win," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of his ballclub. "I'm very proud of the way they played."
The Red Sox bullpen finished second in the BRS standings last week with 120.5 points. On Saturday, Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel recorded a four-out save by striking out all four Yankees batters he faced. That made Kimbrel just the second pitcher to accomplish a four-out save with four strikeouts against New York, following Toronto's Miguel Batista on Sept. 24, 2005.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.