Castrovince: Bucs will have say in Wild Card race
PITTSBURGH -- If you're the symbolic sort, the takeaway from the three games played at PNC Park between the Pirates and Cardinals this week was that image from Tuesday night of the Bucs' Josh Harrison barreling into Cards catcher Yadier Molina and knocking him into next week.Clean play? Questionable collision? Should Harrison have slid? Ultimately, the answers depend upon the lens through which you view this Wild Card clash. What we know for certain, though, is that Harrison rung Molina's bell, and the bell has not yet rung on these Pirates. If the Buccos finish this season with 82-plus wins, that, in and of itself, is one of the great stories to come out of 2012. But there's a feistiness to this club that was illustrated in that pulverizing play at the plate and, more importantly, in the series victory, which pulled the Pirates within one game of a Wild Card spot. You've undoubtedly noticed that the Pirates have slipped in the standings with a sub-.500 record in the second half, while the defending World Series champion Cards have trended upward and the Reds have established a stranglehold on the division. So at a time of year when we start to look for statements, a 9-0 victory Tuesday and 5-0 win Wednesday are clear positives for the Pirates, who have also earned the "W" in the season series. The statement, it would appear, is that while the Pirates have endured some difficulty in recent weeks, they don't appear to be going away or succumbing to the weight of history just yet. They are very much on the hunt for more than just a winning record. "It's a team that definitely believes in themselves," Cards manager Mike Matheny said. "And I've had this conversation with our guys. This team believes in themselves, believes in each other and they're going to fight you until the end. And I admire that. That's something I believe we should all bring to the table." What the Pirates haven't been bringing to the table in the second half as frequently as the first are quality starts. But from the muck of a week in which the plug finally had to be pulled on the struggling Erik Bedard, rose two extremely encouraging outings from James McDonald and Wandy Rodriguez. McDonald was the surprising stud of the first half. Buoyed by a superb slider he added to his repertoire, he went 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA in his first 17 starts. His ERA since is 6.24. So when McDonald rattled off seven scoreless innings with just two hits and a walk allowed against the Cards on Tuesday, it was a sight for manager Clint Hurdle's sore eyes. "It starts with focus," Hurdle said. "He does have a certain switch he needs to hit or reboot every time he takes the ball and goes out there. You're not going to get that result every time out, but that type of focus being in play, there's no telling where he can take it from there if he can maintain that consistency with his focus." Rodriguez, meanwhile, has, in Hurdle's view, focused too much on his status as high-profile trade acquisition and not enough on simply being himself. "What you can feel is there's a heightened sense of anxiety," Hurdle said. "'I need to do better, I need to do better quicker, I need to do really good right now, because this is supposed to work and they traded for me.' Rather than just getting in that good place he was at for six years where he's really tough to hit, really tough to beat, when it looked like he didn't have a care in the world on the mound." Rodriguez looked plenty relaxed Wednesday, allowing just three hits with three walks over six scoreless innings to earn his first win as a starter with his new club. Perhaps now, in the wake of this series, NL MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, whose average has dropped 27 points this month, can relax a little more, too. Because when Pedro Alvarez is hitting the way he did against the Cards -- banging out eight hits, including three homers, and driving in seven runs -- the Bucs' lineup looks a heck of a lot longer. We're still a long way from the finish line, and it's clearly a complicated Wild Card picture. So the Pirates have learned not to read too much into trends, such as the 9-16 August record they held just two days ago. "First things first, I think we shouldn't focus on standings," Alvarez said. "There's a lot of things we can't control that are out of our hands, like teams winning and teams losing. For us, we just have to stay focused amongst ourselves and play the best baseball we can every day." They played that kind of ball the last two days, in a series of obvious import. It was a collision -- at one point, quite literally -- of two contenders. And the Pirates are still standing.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.