LOS ANGELES — After dismantling the Los Angeles Dodgers in two of three games at the end of April, the Pittsburgh Pirates had won nine of 10 and sat atop the National League with an 18-8 record.
But on Thursday, the Pirates found themselves in a 2-0 hole after the Dodgers’ first two at bats, and more importantly, now seven games under .500 after dropping three of four to Los Angeles in their pre- All star break. resit.
“We played really well against a good team,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said of the series following Thursday’s 5-2 loss. “We just didn’t finish the games.”
The Pirates quickly tied the game in the second inning on Nick Gonzales’ two-run double off Dodgers starter Julio Urías on Thursday, but then failed to mount another attack. Urías struckout eight batters in six innings and the Pirates hit only one hit off the Dodgers’ bullpen.
Max Muncy broke the 2-2 tie in the bottom of the sixth inning with a two-run homer off starter Johan Oviedo, and Mookie Betts scored on Freddie Freeman’s seventh-inning single for Freeman’s third RBI on the night after his two- run home run in the first inning.
Since their first meeting in April, these two teams have gone in opposite directions. The Dodgers, who were 13-13 at the time, have subsequently enjoyed a surge that has taken them 11 games over .500 and less than one game behind the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has a 22-39 record since the series and is weathering a rocky stretch that has included seven- and 10-game losing streaks.
Fresh off back-to-back 100-loss campaigns, in a vacuum, it would be fair to characterize the Pirates’ 40-47 mark with three games to the All-Star break as a success, but the blazing start that painting them as The Pleasant Surprise of 2023 reset expectations and made their subsequent demise particularly disappointing.
However, given that Pittsburgh has the fourth-youngest roster in MLB, according to ESPN, the nature of the season should perhaps not be surprising.
“I think [finding consistency] is the next step in closing these gaps,” said 19-year veteran starting pitcher Rich Hill before the game. “The streakiness is part of youth [on the roster]and I really attribute it to that.
While the past few months have been undeniably frustrating for the Pirates, it seems there’s been no stopping or a sense of panic, especially from veterans like Hill and Andrew McCutchen. Instead, they said they consider these growing pains to be normal with such a young team.
“When we had the losing month, it was like, ‘OK, now you understand it’s not going to be easy,'” McCutchen, an old pirate, said before the game about the maturation process his team went through. “You’re not going to show up every day and win a ball game.”
Despite the struggles, McCutchen and Hill expressed optimism that the Pirates are about to break their funk, with McCutchen noting “better to have gone through it now than in August and September.”
“Losing that nickname or that definition [of being a non-contender] of the last few seasons I see happening in this dressing room,” Hill said before the game. “Hopefully we turn it on in the second half and get a chance to make the playoffs.”
And even though they put themselves in a hole, the playoffs are still within reach for the Pirates, who are now 7.5 games away from a wild card spot. They have proven their ability to play at a postseason level and have a much needed break to regroup on the horizon, but the key for the second half will be to find some consistency. Fortunately, the Pittsburgh manager believes there is an easy way to achieve this.
“It’s about emphasizing that it’s a baseball game,” Shelton said ahead of Wednesday night’s game. “Don’t let all the outer stuff take that away.”