Sveum: Pirates' success starts with pen

CHICAGO – Chicago Cubs manager Dale Sveum played for the last Pittsburgh Pirates team that really contended for the playoffs, the 1997 “Freak Show” team that finished 79-83, but just five games back of the Houston Astros in the National League Central.

Now he’s watching from far down in the standings as the Pirates (53-33) make a run for their first playoff bid, not to mention winning season, since 1992.

Sveum only sees one key difference from his fourth-place, 37-48 Cubs.

“We got to remember we’re basically the same team,” he said before Sunday's game. “We’ve scored more runs than them, same on-base percentages, they have more speed. But their bullpen has just been (laughter). That’s what wins now. if you look at the history of baseball in the last 10 years, the teams that have won the World Series have a bullpen that nobody scores runs on. That’s what they’ve had. You give us a bullpen like that, that’s 15 games, that’s how many we’ve lost because of an imploding bullpen.”

Of course, it helps that the Pirates have stars that hit like stars, like Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez and the fast-rising Starling Marte.

But how do you quickly sum up the differences between the two teams’ fortunes? Jason Grilli made the All-Star team. Carlos Marmol was designated for assignment.

The Pirates’ bullpen, which they’ve dubbed the “Shark Tank,” has been extremely impressive, and well-used. Going into Sunday’s game, the Pirates’ relievers have logged 307 innings, the second-most in baseball behind Toronto’s 315 2/3, but have the fourth-best ERA at 2.90, the second-best batting average allowed at .216 and the best WHIP at 1.13. Grilli is 28 of 29 in save opportunities -- the Pirates have eight other blown saves spread out among other relievers.

“With guys like that, the game’s over when you’re winning,” Sveum said. “We’ve put ourselves in position to win many, many games but we haven’t been able to close it out.”

The Cubs’ bullpen has a 4.18 ERA (sixth-worst) in 230 innings and has blown 17 of 37 save opportunities. They’ve given up a .255 batting average and a 1.36 WHIP. Kevin Gregg has been the unlikely savior off the scrap heap as closer, but he's a marketable trade chip. It could get much worse, even with Marmol gone.

Despite throwing 77 more innings than the Cubs, the Pirates’ bullpen has given up 17 fewer runs and behind a very good defense, zero unearned runs. Cubs relievers have given up nine unearned runs.

“It’s a very hard piece of the puzzle because (relievers) get hurt quite a bit because they have to get up and get down, so it’s a hard thing to have every year,” Sveum said. “Yeah, they’re great this year, but you lose two out of the seven it’s hard to (repeat. That’s the last piece you put together, but you get me seven closers out there, you’ll win a lot of games nowadays.”