It's another milestone for the Pittsburgh Pirates: With a dramatic 2-1 win over the Cubs, followed by the Cardinals beating the Nationals, the Pirates officially clinched a playoff spot, their first since 1992. If you don't remember 1992 in Pirates history, that's when Barry Bonds patrolled left field, Tim Wakefield was a rookie knuckleballer and Jim Leyland was chain-smoking cigarettes at Three Rivers Stadium.
The Pirates may have preferred the Nationals to stay alive for at least another day and beat the Cardinals -- which would have cut St. Louis' lead in the NL Central over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to one game -- but they happily popped the champagne bottles in their cramped Wrigley Field clubhouse, goggles and hugs for everyone.
The game was tied 1-1 in the ninth when Starling Marte smashed a two-out home run to left field off Kevin Gregg for a 2-1 lead. In the bottom of the ninth, the Pirates threw out the game-tying run at home plate with two outs in one of the strangest plays you'll ever see. With Nate Schierholtz on first base, Ryan Sweeney singled to right-center, but right fielder Marlon Byrd had the ball bounce off his glove. Andrew McCutchen was backing up the play as Schierholtz charged home. McCutchen's throw hit the infield grass and was skidding off target, but Justin Morneau cut it off at the pitcher's mound and threw to catcher Russell Martin, who tagged out Schierholtz for the final out.
Just your typical 9-8-3-2 putout. To clinch a postseason slot, no less.
Now for the bad-news side of things. While the Pirates are everyone's favorite underdog-makes-good story and team to root for in the postseason if yours isn't there, there are issues with the way the club is playing right now, both of which were on display in Monday's game: The offense is struggling, and the ninth inning is suddenly a question mark.
First, the offense. The Pirates had just six hits on Monday, home runs by Marte and Neil Walker accounting for the two runs. They were held to five hits by the Reds on both Saturday on Sunday, and last week against the Padres they were one-hit by Andrew Cashner when he faced the minimum 27 batters, and two days later were held to three hits while sending just 29 batters to the plate. In their past 12 games, the Pirates are hitting .209 and have been held to six hits or fewer in seven of those games.
In September, the Pirates are hitting .231 while averaging just 3.5 runs per game. Too often, the offense is now dependent on the home run. They also haven't been manufacturing runs as they're just 4-for-10 stealing bases this month.
Of course, this goes back to August. The Pirates are 25-25 the past two months; they've morphed into a .500 team that struggles to score runs. GM Neal Huntington attempted to improve the team's offense when he traded for Byrd and Morneau, but neither has made a big impact. Byrd has been OK, not great, since coming over from the Mets, hitting .277/.316/.426. Manager Clint Hurdle keeps thinking Morneau is going to be his cleanup hitter, at least against right-handers, but Morneau hasn't been a cleanup-caliber hitter in years and is hitting .254/.354/.299 without a home run in 22 games with Pittsburgh. At least he's drawing some walks, but it's wishful thinking right now that Morneau is a championship-caliber cleanup hitter.
The bullpen has been such an outstanding strength all season, but suddenly the ninth inning is an issue. Jason Grilli, back from his DL stint, survived on Monday to get the save, but it says something that Hurdle actually began the inning with lefty Tony Watson retiring Anthony Rizzo. Grilli has allowed 13 baserunners in 6 2/3 innings pitched since coming back from the DL.
Mark Melancon still owns that sweet 1.30 ERA, but that number has risen in September. He had back-to-back blown saves on Wednesday and Friday last week, and while the blown save against the Reds on Friday involved some bad fielding and bad-luck bloopers, he's still had two other four-hit innings this month. The confidence level can't be as high with him right now as it was two weeks ago.
The Pirates have five games remaining, five games to either catch the Cardinals or get a game up on the Reds in order to the host the wild-card game. It's too late for new evidence to accrue, so Hurdle will have to go with his gut on things like Morneau and maneuvering the bullpen arms.
I'm still rooting for the Pirates, and Monday was a great day for Pittsburgh and all the Pirates fans who have suffered through 20 years of bad baseball. But I'm starting to fear these next five games are going to be followed by just one more.