Opening long homestand, time is now for Pirates
Maturing Pittsburgh team, solidly in playoff race, to play next 11 games at PNC Park
THREE UPStaying focused: Having stumbled to a professional sports-record 19 consecutive losing seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates are embarking on a season-longest 11-game homestand that could go a long way in establishing their legitimacy as a postseason contender. The naysayers will remind of last season's second-half debacle, when the Pirates lost 43 of their final 62 games to turn midseason hopes into another 90-plus loss season. These Pirates, however, have given fans reason for hope. They return to PNC Park on Monday 4 1/2 games back of Cincinnati in the National League Central, holding onto the second NL Wild Card spot by a half-game over Atlanta, and looking to exploit the NL West. They host Arizona and the Los Angeles Dodgers in four-game series with a three-game visit by San Diego in between.
The numbers provide hope for the Pirates, who have enjoyed crowds in excess of 30,000 for seven of their past nine home games. They are, after all, 33-16 at home this year, the best home record in the big leagues. They will be facing lefties in three of the four games against the D-backs, but despite a .247 average against lefties, the Pirates are 17-11 when left-handers start against them -- the fifth-best such mark in the Majors.The maturity level of the Pirates was evident in Sunday's 6-2 win at Cincinnati. With surging ace A.J. Burnett carrying the workload in winning for the 13th time in his last 14 decisions (and the Pirates winning for the 17th time in his 20 starts), they pushed aside the ninth-inning emotions of Saturday, when Reds closer Aroldis Chapman drilled Andrew McCutchen, and managed to salvage a win in the final game of the series while making it clear that all hasn't been forgotten. "Winning was more important than all that other stuff,'' Burnett said after the game. And later he added, "We haven't' forgotten.'' Rebound: Someone has to win when Oakland hosts the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in a three-game series that opens in Oakland. The A's are clinging to a half-game lead on the Angels in the AL Wild Card race, and both teams are clinging to hope after a shaky couple of days.
What the A's want to affirm is that their 19-5 July was not a mirage, that they aren't running out of gas. And that they can be the surprise team in the AL pennant battle. The looming question, though, is whether they are going to keep Ryan Cook in the closer's role or will season-opening closer Grant Balfour get another shot? Cook has blown saves in four of his past six appearances, giving him an AL-leading seven. And after not allowing a home run in his first 40 appearances, he's given up four in the past seven games, including save-blowing shots by Toronto on Friday and Saturday. The A's did pull out a 5-4, 15-inning win on Friday, their 10th one-run victory in a row, but then came a 3-1, 11-inning loss on Saturday, and a 6-5 loss on Sunday.The A's have series this week with the Angels and White Sox, on the road, but after that they get a nine-game run against AL Central teams with losing records -- Kansas City, Cleveland and Minnesota. Wild times: The A's and Angels are two of five teams that are within two games of each other in the battle for the two AL Wild Card spots. And while they are facing off in Oakland, the Tigers -- who share the Wild Card lead with the A's -- will be hosting the Yankees in a three-game set. Baltimore, which is a game back of the A's and Tigers and a half-game behind the Angels, is at home to play a resurgent Seattle, which had won seven in a row before dropping two of three at Yankee Stadium during the weekend. Tampa Bay, two games back in the Wild Card standings after being shut out in back-to-back games by Baltimore, hosts Toronto in a three-game series that starts Thursday. THREE DOWN Devil of a time: In the offseason, the Angels made a free-agent splash, signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. Then, in advance of the Trade Deadline, they landed the biggest name on the trade market -- right-hander Zack Greinke. But so far, not so good. The Angels arrive in Oakland having lost four of their past five games, blowing leads in all four of the losses. They are winless in Greinke's first two starts, which underscores growing concerns about a starting rotation that has faltered, creating a workload that is too much for the bullpen.
In the first seven games of the current road trip, in which the Angels are 3-4, the bullpen has taken all four losses, blown three saves and has given up 23 earned runs on 33 hits, seven of them home runs, in 21 1/3 innings. It's a growing problem because the rotation has a 5.41 ERA and is averaging fewer than six innings in the past 34 games.Revival: San Francisco is clinging to the NL West lead, a half-game up on the Dodgers and four games ahead of Arizona. And the Giants got a nice boost with a weekend sweep of Colorado, but it is one thing to batter the reeling Rockies. Now the Giants have to make a three-game visit to St. Louis, where the defending World Series champions are trying to reclaim pennant-race relevancy.
Manager Bruce Bochy's handling of the Giants' bullpen showed the significance he put into the weekend visit to Coors Field, where the Rockies are well on their way to the first 100-loss season in franchise history. Yes, the Giants outscored the Rockies, 35-13, and even won a game started by Tim Lincecum. Lincecum saw the Giants improve to 8-15 in his starts with a 104-pitch, six-inning laborious Sunday effort that gave him back-to-back wins for the first time since April. No, they weren't laughers in the minds of the Giants. Consider that the bullpen combined to work 8 2/3 innings, and Bochy made 13 calls to the bullpen to get 26 outs.Oh, Roy: Roy Oswalt supposedly wanted to pitch for the Rangers because he wanted to be part of a pennant race. It appears that he wanted to be part of that race on his own terms. Oswalt's status with the Rangers came into question on Sunday. Upset at being bumped from the rotation when Texas acquired Ryan Dempster from the Cubs, Oswalt was called to pitch out of the bullpen for the second time in what became a 7-6, 10-inning loss to Kansas City. Oswalt came on with the score tied at 6-6, needed only 30 pitches to retire the six batters he faced, but then, according to media reports, refused to take the mound for a third inning. Oswalt, who was an in-season signee after deciding sit out the first two months of the season, had a 3-2 record in six starts for the Rangers, but more telling was his 6.49 ERA. So when Dempster arrived, the Rangers opted to send Oswalt to the bullpen instead of Scott Feldman, who has won six consecutive decisions.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.