FRIDAY – FEATURE
Perhaps it was nothing more than a slip of tongue.
Or perhaps it was a Freudian slip.
When the Pirates prepared to open a series with the Arizona Diamondbacks a little more than 2 ½ weeks ago at PNC Park, it was interesting what second baseman Neil Walker had to say when asked about his team’s inability to gain ground on the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central.
“All we can worry about right now is playing the Arizona Cardinals,” Walker said.
Regardless of what they say publicly, the Pirates can’t get the St. Louis Cardinals off their mind.
Their current four-game losing streak notwithstanding, the Pirates are having a fantastic season with a 79-53 record. Yet they trail the Cardinals by 6 1/2 games as St. Louis has the best record in the major leagues at 86-57.
“It gets somewhat frustrating,” Pirates left-handed reliever Tony Watson said. “We’re playing great baseball but they’re playing great baseball, too. We happen to be playing in a great division, the best division in the baseball in my opinion.”
However, the Pirates don’t play great baseball when they visit St. Louis. And that has to be on their minds as they get set to play the Cardinals in a three-game series beginning Friday night.
The Pirates have lost 20 of their last 25 games at Busch Stadium, dating to 2013, including two of three in the National League Division Series that year.
It would be inaccurate to say the Pirates fear the Cardinals as they play St. Louis tough at PNC Park, including overcoming deficits twice in extra innings to win the last two games before the All-Star break.
This is reminiscent of the problem the Pirates had with the New York Mets in the late 1980s when they were returning to prominence following a dreadful period that included the Pittsburgh drug trials and a 105-loss season in 1985.
Through their first 100 games of the 1988 season, the Pirates hung tough with the heavily favored Mets in the NL East race and trailed by just two games going into a four-game weekend series at Shea Stadium in New York to end July.
The Pirates lost three of four, scoring a total of only one run in the three losses.
A week later, the Mets took of three of four from the Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium, holding them to a total of eight runs.
The six losses in eight games dropped the Pirates six games behind the Mets — there were no wild cards in those days — and they eventually finished in second place, though a distant 15 games back.
The Pirates’ 1989 season basically ended before it ever started because of injuries but they locked
into another close NL East race with the Mets in 1990. The Pirates held a half-game lead when New York came to Three Rivers for a three-game series Sept. 5.
The Pirates swept a doubleheader by scores of 1-0 and 3-1. Left-hander Zane Smith, acquired a little less than a month earlier from the Montreal Expos in a trade, pitched a one-hit shutout and retired the last 27 batters he faced in the opener then Jeff King hit a pair of home runs in the nightcap.
The Pirates won 7-1 the next night to sweep the series and go on to win not only their first division title since 1979 but what would be the first of three consecutive NL East crowns.
“I don’t think those guys believed they could beat the Mets when I came over there,” Smith said years later. “Everything changed after that. We knew we could beat anybody.”
The Pirates of this era need that defining moment. They need to, as manager Clint Hurdle is so fond of saying, put a foot down.
This weekend would be the perfect time.Want the Full Story? Get "Inside Access"