I don’t watch college basketball much. In fact, it’s my least favorite sport. It’s the perfect combination of not caring about college sports, and hating the sport of basketball in general. I’ve tried giving basketball a chance, but outside of the final two minutes, I just don’t find it interesting at all. About the only time I watch college basketball is during the first week of March Madness, and usually because I’ve filled out a bracket in a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em…then beat them by having no knowledge of the sport” strategy.
One thing that happens every year is an underdog will get off to a hot start against a highly ranked team. I’m not talking a number ten versus a number seven. I mean a number 16, 15, or 14 against a number 1, 2, or 3.
That team comes out of the gate hot. You figure the top ranked team will bounce back, but it doesn’t happen. Ten minutes go by. You start seeing “upset watch” alerts. The first half is finished and the underdog is still leading. People start to believe. Then, in most cases, the favorite starts to come back in the second half. The underdog hangs on until the final ten minutes, then starts to let the lead slip away. Then you get inside the two minute mark, the underdog is down by ten, and they start fouling to try and come back. And that’s about the time I turn it to something more interesting, like a meaningless pre-season baseball game.
This season for the Pirates has felt like an “Upset Watch” game in college basketball. It wasn’t necessarily in the order above, but it’s been close. The team got out of the gate slow, but around the ten minute mark of the season they started getting hot. At half time (the All-Star break), people were believing, and the “Upset Watch” was in full effect. They even came out hot in the second half.
But now we’re approaching the final ten minutes, and the Pirates are slumping. And just like an underdog in a March Madness contest, there’s a feel that the Pirates are coming back down to Earth, and don’t have what it takes to hold on and prevent a collapse against the favorites.
This season has that same feel because there are a lot of parallels. The Pirates were an underdog coming in to the year. Not many expected them to improve from their 72 win total last year. Some felt they would see a drop in wins. I don’t think many felt they would reach the final part of the season sitting two games out of the Wild Card race. But it has happened, and now they’re slumping late in the season, which has people feeling the same as they would if the Pirates were a Cinderella story during March Madness (is it even called that?).
It feels like a March Madness underdog story. But it’s not a March Madness underdog story. In an individual game any team can win. And even if an underdog doesn’t win, it’s still possible to come close and put up those “Upset Watch” alerts. But that’s not the case for an entire season. It’s very hard for a team to be competitive for the majority of a season in a fluke manner. The team has to actually be good. The Pirates are 68-59 right now. After 127 games, you don’t get that kind of record without being somewhat legit.
You could point to the collapse last year, and you might be able to draw some parallels. The Pirates weren’t expected to contend. They were a surprise team in the first half. They were challenging for the division lead in July. They made a few lower key trades at the deadline, then collapsed in August.
The difference between last year and this year is that the Pirates weren’t really competitors last year. They were 54-52 at the end of July, and their division was weak. In August, the Pirates went from a team hovering around .500 to a team that started losing, and losing bad. They didn’t really recover in September. Meanwhile, the top teams in the division started taking off. Milwaukee ran away with the division, while the Cardinals also separated themselves. That last part is another parallel, as it appears Cincinnati and St. Louis are doing the same thing this year.
The Pirates are actually competitive this year. They’ve gone 9-15 in the month of August, yet they’re still nine games above .500 and two games out of the Wild Card race. You don’t get to this point by luck. Pirates fans have been trained to expect the worst over the last 20 years. But you remove the Pirates from this situation and you apply what is happening to any other team. With any other team, this would be viewed as an inopportune slump, and not Cinderella getting close to midnight.
There’s no denying that the Pirates are in a slump right now, and it’s probably the worst time to slump. If the season was a college basketball game during March Madness, we’d be in the final ten minutes, and the Pirates would be committing turnovers and giving up three pointers right now. But there’s still time left in this game. And unlike the March Madness comparison — where a fluke is possible under the “Any Given Sunday” line of thinking — it’s hard to suggest that we’re watching the real Pirates. The real Pittsburgh Pirates are the ones that are nine games above .500 and still in the Wild Card race in late-August. The real Pirates are the team from the entire season.
This recent stretch is the worst of that team. If this version remains for too long, the Pirates won’t stand a chance in the Wild Card race. But if they bounce back and play the way they played in the first four months of the season, they can still contend. And there’s going to be a feeling that they won’t rebound and that this one month stretch is what is to be expected going forward. With any other team you wouldn’t dismiss four months of results in favor of one month. There’s no reason to do the same with the Pirates.
Links and Notes
**The Pirates lost to the Brewers 7-0.
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.