Bucs must beat Brewers to progress
Pittsburgh needs to figure out how to knock off 'King of Mountain'
SAN FRANCISCO -- Earlier this season, when the Pirates were beginning to roll past all sorts of expectations, manager Clint Hurdle brought up this concept of a 2011 checklist.
While he took pride in enlightening everyone to some of the items it contained, truth is, most were already pretty obvious. That's the byproduct of coming off a 57-win season.
But the list was critical nonetheless, especially if the Pirates were going to take significant steps forward and then sustain that momentum. It began, in no particular order, as such:
Improve the road record
Find a way to draw fans back to PNC Park
Get more out of the starting rotation
Make strides toward 82
To the surprise of many, the Pirates began shaving down the to-do list rapidly.
|"We need our starting pitchers to put a foot down, we didn't pitch well. We just haven't pitched well against them, especially at their place. Not many teams have. They've got a dominant home record. You've got to make them uncomfortable at the plate. You've got to keep them guessing. You have to try and keep them off balance."|
|-- Clint Hurdle|
By June 1, the club had already won as many road games as it had in all of 2010. There have already been 14 home sellouts, a sign of how much the city has begun to again embrace its baseball team. The rotation has anchored this club, which still has a realistic shot of finishing .500.
But for all that's been accomplished thus far, one very big and bolded item remains on that list; another hurdle to clear before the Pirates can truly consider themselves a threat in the National League Central moving forward.
For anyone who has followed the organization in recent years, this item, too, should be obvious.
Beat the Brewers.
As much as the Pirates want to free themselves from the shackles of their recent past, there cannot be unconstrained progress in the right direction until the organization can find a way to win more often against a team that has become its biggest nemesis.
"It's going to be a big part of how our season turns out," Jeff Karstens said. "We'll come to that obstacle when we get there, and we'll see what happens."
The Pirates have 10 games remaining against the Brewers this year. Six of those will be played at Miller Park, beginning with one on Friday.
The fact that the Pittsburgh's recent 10-game skid came at the same time Milwaukee won nine of 10 took away some of the intrigue of a series that, just two weeks ago, some thought could be between two teams fighting for first place. The Brewers now hold a 10 1/2-game lead over the Pirates.
But when it comes to setting Pittsburgh up for perhaps a fresh push next season, finding a way to beat Milwaukee this year is critical.
"There's no question that for us to go to where we intend to go to, we've got to figure out how to beat the good teams," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We need to look to have it more on the flip side, where we're taking it to somebody instead of having it taken to us."
For the past five years, the Brewers have, quite frankly, taken it to the Pirates.
Pittsburgh is 17-51 against Milwaukee since the beginning of 2007; that includes an 0-5 mark this year. The numbers are even worse when using a Miller Park filter.
The Pirates have gone 3-33 in their last 36 games in Milwaukee. There was a stretch of 22 straight losses sandwiched in there, and Pittsburgh is currently on a nine-game losing streak at Miller Park. Three of those losses came back in May.
"They're good at their place," said Charlie Morton, who will draw the start against the Brewers on Sunday. "We've been trying to figure them out. You go over their hitters as much as you can and try to apply that while you're sticking to your guns and going with what works with you."
|"There's no question that for us to go to where we intend to go to, we've got to figure out how to beat the good teams."|
|-- Neal Huntington|
In finding an explanation for the Bucs' disastrous results in Milwaukee, it's best to start with the pitching. In those 36 games, Pirates pitchers have served up 59 homers and allowed the Brewers to bat at a .299 clip.
The staff's ERA sits at 6.61.
The results have been slightly better -- though still far from impressive -- when playing the Brewers at home. In the last 32 games played between the two clubs at PNC Park, the Pirates have a 5.13 ERA. The fact that the Bucs dropped a 20-0 game to Milwaukee last year certainly did nothing to help that number.
"We need our starting pitchers to put a foot down," Hurdle said. "We didn't pitch well. We just haven't pitched well against them, especially at their place. Not many teams have. They've got a dominant home record. You've got to make them uncomfortable at the plate. You've got to keep them guessing. You have to try and keep them off balance."
The Brewers have the Majors' best winning percentage at home this year, as they have won 41 of 56 of their home games. For whatever reason, Milwaukee has consistently hit and pitched much better in front of its home crowd all year.
Broadening the numbers out to the last five years against the Pirates, the trend stays much the same. The Brewers' pitching staff has a 3.13 ERA against the Bucs at Miller Park, as compared to a 4.04 one at PNC Park.
What the Pirates believe will work in their favor as they prepare for this next series -- which includes a nationally televised game on Saturday -- is that they aren't transfixed on an opponent or a location. The one-game-at-a-time mentality has truly been bought into this year (credit goes to Hurdle for that), which left players even hesitant to talk about the Brewers before the Bucs wrapped up their recent series in San Francisco.
This is a Pirates club undaunted by the past failure. Many, in fact, are blissfully unaware of it.
And maybe that is precisely what the team needs in order to put the pen to paper and make that ever-so-important checkmark.
"You either let that place you go to affect you or you don't," Morton said. "And I'd rather be on the end of 'you don't.' You don't thrive on the fact that you've struggled against a team and now you've got to take it to them. Every game from here on out has to be approached as every game is important."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.