2015 Pittsburgh Pirates
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2015 Pittsburgh Pirates / Franchise: Pittsburgh Pirates / BR Team Page
Clinched Wild Card: September 23, 2015, At Colorado Rockies
Managed by Clint Hurdle
History, Comments, Contributions
The 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates were trying to make the postseason for the third straight season. They returned much of their core from 2013-2014, but made a few off-season changes. C Russell Martin departed via free agency and was replaced by newcomer Francisco Cervelli. The team let Ike Davis walk to make Pedro Alvarez the full-time option at 1B. Jung-ho Kang was signed from the Korea Baseball Organization to provide infield depth. Edison Volquez left as a free agency and the team brought back A.J. Burnett (a 2012-2013 star in Pittsburgh but 2014 bust in Philadelphia) to take his spot in the rotation. Returning would be starters Neil Walker (2B), Jordy Mercer (SS), Josh Harrison (3B), Andrew McCutchen (CF) and Starling Marte (LF) while Gregory Polanco, a part-time option in 2014, became the everyday man in RF. Key pitchers Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton (coming off injury), Jeff Locke, Vance Worley, Mark Melancon and Tony Watson all returned.
The Pirates got a historic performance from their starting pitchers in a three-game sweep of the New York Mets on May 22-24. Cole struck out 10 batters in a 4-1 win on the first day, followed by another ten-strikeout performance by Burnett in the middle game, which the Bucs won 8-2. Liriano capped off the series with 12 strikeouts in a 9-1 win in the concluding game, making it the first time since September 11-12, 1969 that Pirates pitchers had recorded 10 or more strikeouts in three consecutive games. Bob Veale, Bob Moose and Dock Ellis had been the pitchers then. That series marked the beginning of a stretch of 9 wins in 11 games for the Pirates, taking them back over .500 and into contention for a wild card slot after a very slow start. The 9th of these wins, on June 1st, seemingly came with the help of one of their fans: they were leading 4-3 at AT&T Park in the 88th when Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants lifted a fly ball in foul territory near the right field stands; RF Polanco went over to attempt a catch, but a fan wearing a Pirates' cap and jersey (with Barry Bonds number 24) reached over and deflected the ball into the stands, accidentally hitting Polanco in the process. After a video review, umpire Doug Eddings, signaled that Posey was out on fan interference, ending the inning. The Pirates held on to win the game, while the fan was ejected for interfering with a ball in play.
The Pirates played a particularly bizarre game against the Philadelphia Phillies on June 12th. The game was scoreless for 12 innings after its start had been delayed by rain for 86 minutes. The game including some weird plays such as a ball ricocheting high in the air off P Kevin Correia's foot and being caught on the fly by Phillies 2B Andres Blanco, a public shouting match between reliever Ken Giles and manager Ryne Sandberg after Giles had been asked to walk Alvarez intentionally in order to load the bases, and back-to-back brilliant barehanded plays by the two team's third basemen in extra innings. Harrison charged a ground ball with the bases loaded and threw out the batter to end the inning, and the Phillies' Maikel Franco pulled off the exact same play in the bottom of the inning. The Bucs finally won the game on a Marte single up the middle that drove in pinch-hitter Chris Stewart in the 13th inning well past midnight. The two teams had combined to strand 30 baserunners and had used a total of 14 pitchers. the same two teams were at it again on the 14th, with Cole Hamels and A.J. Burnett taking a scoreless tie into extra innings. The Pirates stranded a pair of baserunners in both the 9th and 10th innings before winning in the 11th when Harrison hit a single up the middle off Jonathan Papelbon to drive in Walker. It was the Bucs' fourth straight win, with three of those coming by way of shutout. They made it four whitewashes in five games when Francisco Liriano followed up the next day by shutting out the Chicago White Sox over 8 innings as the Bucs prevailed, 11-0. Next, it was Morton's turn to shine, as he pitched 8 more scoreless innings in a 3-0 blanking of the Sox on June 16th. Morton had missed the start of the season following hip surgery, but had now won his first five starts since coming back, with a 1.62 ERA to boot.
At the halfway point, Pittsburgh was an excellent 47-34, but six games back of the Cardinals, who had the best record in MLB; in most of the other divisions of baseball, the Pirates would have been in first place. McCutchen (.297/.391/.493, 22 2B, 10 HR, 51 RBI, 146 OPS+) was again one of baseball's top players while Marte (.281/.329/.459, 13 HR, 16 SB,48 RBI) was blossoming as a two-way threat and Alvarez (12 HR, .242/.314/.453, 112 OPS+) and Walker (.278/.345/.515, 20 2B) appearing to be rebounding from slow starts. Cervelli was hitting .301/.376/.406 for a 119 OPS+ but didn't provide the same catching defense that Martin had. The only major strugglers on offense were Mercer (.247/.297/.326), usually a slow starter, and Polanco (.231/.300/.330, 17 SB, 77 OPS+).
The staff meanwhile had the second-best ERA in the NL at that point, with an excellent top three of Cole (12-3, 2.28, 113 K in 110 1/3 IP), a resurgent Burnett (7-3, 2.05) and Liriano (5-6, 2.99) and a strong bullpen anchored by Melancon (1-1, 27 Sv, 1.58), Watson (1-1, Sv, 2.09), Jared Hughes (1-1, 2.45 in 40 G) and Rob Scahill (2-4, 2.08). Locke and Morton had ERAs over 4 on the back end of the rotation but had turned in some solid outings and had winning records, and free agent pickup Antonio Bastardo (2-1, 4.01) was somewhat below expectations to that point.
With Harrison and Mercer both out with injuries for extended periods in late July, Kang was starting at SS, leaving a gap at 3B. Pittsburgh then traded for veteran Aramis Ramirez (who the team had shipped away in 2003) to fill third base; they gave up low-grade prospect reliever Yhonathan Barrios in return. Right before the trading deadline, the team added bullpen depth with Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton (for shortstop prospect JaCoby Jones and cash respectively), J.A. Happ for the rotation (with Burnett having struggled in three post-All-Star break starts then going on the DL) and Michael Morse as a right-handed option at 1B to back up Alvarez (with Corey Hart having struggled in that role before winding up on the DL).
The Pirates' bullpen won 19 consecutive decisions from June 25 through September 9th, the longest run in MLB since the 1909 Pirates had 22 in a row. Pittsburgh had a splendid August at 19-8, yet gained only a half-game on the Cardinals, who were 19-9 and the Cubs (also 19-9) remained within striking distance. At month's end, the three NL Central powers had three of baseball's four best records (only the Royals at #2 were an exception). Things looked less promising for the Bucs entering September as they were 21-29 against their division and 58-21 against the other divisions, with most of their September schedule involving divisional matchups. For the third straight year, September 23rd was the date on which the Bucs clinched a postseason slot. This year, they defeated the Colorado Rockies, 13-7, to become the second major league team to punch their ticket, after the division-leading Cardinals. 2B Walker set a career-high with 6 RBIs in that game. They were one of only three teams to make the playoffs each year from 2013-2015 and it was only the third time in Pirate history they made three straight postseasons (1970-1972, 1990-1992 being the others).
Awards and Honors
- All-Star: A.J. Burnett, Gerrit Cole, Andrew McCutchen and Mark Melancon
- Trevor Hoffman Award: Mark Melancon
- NL Gold Glove: Starling Marte (LF)
- NL Silver Slugger Award: Andrew McCutchen (OF)
- Adam Berry: "15 for '15: NL Central trio displayed dominance: Cards, Bucs, Cubs put together top three records in bigs", mlb.com, December 29, 2015. 
- Joe Lemire: "Beyond Cutch: Pirates sailing toward playoffs thanks to Cervelli, Kang", USA Today Sports, August 21, 2015. 
- Reuters Staff: "Pittsburgh Pirates second team to clinch playoff berth", Reuters.com, September 24, 2015
- Phil Rogers: "Bucs' breakthrough won't be easy", mlb.com, October 5, 2015.