As their season spirals out of control, the Pittsburgh Pirates know they can count on one constant: win or lose, the games will be close.
And they will lose most of them.
The Pirates (45-70) had 70 games decided by two runs or less, but won just 29 (41.4%) close contests. Of their last 21 games, 16 have been decided by two runs or less; half of those came by one run, including Sunday’s 8-7 loss in San Francisco.
“I think every day we go into the game (knowing the game), we play two-run games more than anybody else in baseball,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said Sunday on AT&T SportsNet’s pregame show . “My plan is that every day is a game that we participate in. We have to find ways to score more runs.”
Most importantly, the Pirates need to find ways to win games that go down the stretch. Of their 75 games since May 23, 52 (69.3%) have been decided by two runs or less. That includes 34 of 46 losses in that span and all three losses in three games against the Giants.
Shelton tried to be positive about the close results, saying it showed signs of a struggling team that relied heavily on rookies. Pirates learn to have a short memory, find new ways to compensate for unpleasant losses and move on to the next game.
“It’s over,” Pirates shortstop Will Crowe said Sunday after Tyro Estrada’s two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth. “There’s nothing we can do about it now.”
After going 2-8 on their 10-game road trip, the Pirates return to PNC Park for a nine-game homestand that begins Tuesday with three games against the Boston Red Sox (57-59), Cincinnati Reds (45-68). and the defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves (70-46).
The Pirates have played 28 of their last 47 games at home, where they have a much better hitting percentage (.453) than they do on the road (.344).
The Pirates are 17-18 in head-to-head games this season. Turned their record around in rare games — going 41-29 instead of 29-41 — and they would have reached .500 and remained in the wild-card race had they not been competing for the title in the NL Central, baseball’s worst division.
Their record does not reflect the injuries the Pirates have suffered this season. At one point, there were five regulars on the injured list and they fielded a lineup with several rookies.
Trading the RBI leader for designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach and the most consistent starting pitcher for lefty Jose Quintana didn’t help matters, nor did the recent absence of key players. On a 10-game road trip to Baltimore, Arizona and San Francisco, the Pirates were without David Bednar (back) and lost big-credit rookie Yerry De Los Santos for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. They played in the Giants series without third baseman Ke’Brian Hayes (back spasms), who remains day-to-day.
But as Crowe said, the results are what they are.
It didn’t help that the Pirates went 16 innings scoreless in the series, including a stretch where they went 0-20 with runners in scoring position in the Giants’ streak. Even after falling behind by five runs on Sunday thanks to a breakout game from Brian Reynolds, who snapped out of a 7-for-34 funk with a five-RBI game, the Pirates still found a way to lose.
“It was a tough contest, but we showed what we’re made of,” said Reynolds, who went 3-for-4 with a double and a three-run homer. “We always go in there and fight. We just didn’t pull it out.”
If the fight is a sign of improvement, it doesn’t show up in the standings. The Pirates slipped to last place in the NL Central, a full game behind a Reds team that started the season 3-22. After finishing 61-101 last year, the Pirates have 63 wins this season.
“We’re in a lot of games,” Shelton said. “We play a lot of games and you saw the fight in them. They continue to fight. With a young group, we have to make sure we make plays and finish plays. That’s what we have to get better at.”
Pirates know that it cannot be worse.