Since 2011, I’ve developed something of a Pavlovian response to the Pirates and early-season winning: I expect a collapse. And I was expecting a collapse this year, until not very long ago. But on Sunday afternoon, when I saw Russell Martin walk off to secure a sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers.
The video isn’t yet available for embedding from MLB.com, nor is it available on their YouTube page. (Ed. Note: Found it!) However, there are what looks like hundreds of videos with single-digit views. I’m not really sure what they’re doing with that page. You can see Martin’s walk-off here, though.
Martin’s knock — a squibbing grounder past the outstretched Jean Segura‘s glove — wasn’t much. It was the perfect cap for a slog of a game — 14 innings, a two-hour rain delay that knocked out both starters within two innings, and just 10 hits prior to the Pirates’ mini-rally to win it. It was the Springfield Tire Yard Fire of baseball games. Six hours and still burning strong!
The Pirates didn’t really express their dominance in this series — they won each of the final two games 2-1 despite the Brewers starting career minor leaguer Donovan Hand on Saturday and seeing Kyle Lohse knocked out by rain after 1 2/3 innings on Sunday. But I didn’t need to see dominance, and I imagine Pirates fans feel the same given the club’s recent history against Milwaukee.
For the uninitiated — that is, almost every fan of the other 28 teams — the Pirates spent 2007 through 2012 more or less at the mercy of the Brewers. Among NL teams, only San Diego had a better winning percentage against the Pirates than Milwaukee, and that by a paltry two tenths of a percent. The Pirates were awful over these six seasons, no doubt — they finished 161 games under 500 in sum — but they went an amazing 45 under against Milwaukee (24-69). The next best Central team against Pittsburgh? The Cubs, of all teams, at 41-53 — 12 under .500, a whole 33 less than Milwaukee.
The last two years, the circumstances been especially heinous. On July 23, 2011, Fox Sports announced it was flexing a Brewers-Pirates matchup on August 14th into its slate of Sunday national broadcasts — something usually unthinkable, considering the clubs shared one postseason berth combined since 1992.
On July 24, the Pirates beat St. Louis 4-3 to forth their way into a three-way tie with the Brewers and Cardinals. Three weeks later, on August 14th, the Brewers swept the Pirates out of Milwaukee. Pittsburgh was, just 17 games later, 13 games behind their once-tied foes. Pittsburgh won just three of 15 contest against Milwaukee that season.
In 2012, the Pirates looked to have a little more bite. Although Cincinnati ran away with the division in August, the Pirates entered September at nine games over .500 despite an August 31st loss to Milwaukee. The Brewers proceeded to finish up the sweep at PNC Park to push Pittsburgh 1.5 games out of the final Wild Card slot.
The clubs met one more time, September 18th through the 20th at Miller Park. The Pirates and Brewers entered tied at 74-72 and 2.5 games behind St. Louis in the Wild Card. Neither caught the Cardinals, but Milwaukee swept the Pirates and outscored them 18-8. The Pirates fell below .500 as a result for the first time since they were 24-25 on May 29. They did not make it back over.
Whether good, bad or mediocre — on either side — Milwaukee has been a thorn of the worst kind in Pittsburgh’s side. Games like Sunday’s, the endless tire fire, always seemed to slide somehow in Milwaukee’s way. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review called Miller Park a house of horrors after Pittsburgh went 7-44 there over six years. The Pirates were sure the Brewers were stealing signs. At home, it was better, but not by much — just 17-25.
With Sunday’s sweep-clinching victory, the Pirates jumped out to a 9-4 lead over Milwaukee in the season series. The two clubs will face each other six more times, at the end of August and then again over Labor Day weekend. If the Pirates can win just one of those games, they will clinch the season series for the first time since 2006. At this point — with the Brewers in free fall and this year’s Pirates looking far more like one with staying power than any we’ve seen in the past — such an event seems like a certainty.
The Pirates still have a tough road ahead — the NL Central is excellent this season despite Chicago and Milwaukee’s struggles, and St. Louis (two games back) and Cincinnati (5.5 back) will challenge them the rest of the way, and Washington and Los Angeles could be there to challenge for Wild Card berths as well.
Still, Pittsburgh is a full 10 games clear of a playoff spot. The last two years, when Pittsburgh has seen the finish line, Milwaukee has popped up and sent it crashing to the ground. This year, the Pirates have brushed away many a Brewers challenge with ease. Just one more reason to believe this year isn’t like all those others over in Pittsburgh.