Pirates remain calm and confident amid struggles

LOS ANGELES — Upon dismantling the Los Angeles Dodgers in two of three games in late April, the Pittsburgh Pirates had won nine of 10 and sat atop the National League with an 18-8 record.

But on Thursday, the Pirates found themselves in a 2-0 hole after the Dodgers’ first two at-bats, and more important, now seven games under .500 after dropping three of four to Los Angeles in their pre-All-Star break rematch.

“We played really well against a good team,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said of the series after Thursday’s 5-2 loss. “We just didn’t finish the games.”

The Pirates quickly tied Thursday’s game in the second inning on Nick Gonzales’ two-run double off Dodgers starter Julio Urías but provided no more offense after that. Urías struck out eight in six innings and the Pirates mustered only one hit off the Dodgers’ bullpen.

Max Muncy broke the 2-2 tie in the bottom of the sixth inning with a two-run homer off starter Johan Oviedo, and Mookie Betts scored on Freddie Freeman’s single in the seventh inning for Freeman’s third RBI on the night following his two-run home run in the first inning.

Since their first meeting in April, these two teams have gone in opposite directions. The Dodgers, who were 13-13 at the time, have subsequently enjoyed a surge that has put them 11 games over .500 and less than one game behind the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, owns a 22-39 record since the series, enduring a troublesome stretch that has included losing streaks of seven and 10 games.

Fresh off back-to-back 100-loss campaigns, in a vacuum, it would be fair to characterize the Pirates’ 40-47 mark with three games until the All-Star break as a success, but the blazing start that painted them as 2023’s pleasant surprise reset expectations and has made their ensuing demise particularly disappointing.

However, given Pittsburgh boasts the fourth-youngest roster in MLB according to ESPN, perhaps the nature of its season should not be surprising.

“I think [finding consistency] is the next step in closing these gaps,” 19-year veteran starting pitcher Rich Hill said before the game. “The streakiness is part of the youth [on the roster], and I really do attribute it to that.”

While the past few months have been undeniably frustrating for the Pirates, it appears there is no quit or sense of panic, especially from veterans like Hill and Andrew McCutchen. Instead, they said they see these growing pains as par for the course with such a young team.

“When we had the losing month, it was like, ‘OK, now you guys understand that it’s not gonna be easy,’” McCutchen, a longtime Pirate, said before the game regarding the maturation process his team has undergone. “You’re not just gonna show up everyday and win a ballgame.”

Despite the struggles, McCutchen and Hill expressed optimism that the Pirates are on the verge of snapping their funk, with McCutchen noting “it’s better to have gone through it now than in August and September.”

“Losing that moniker or that definition [of being a non-contender] from the last couple of seasons is something I can see happening in this locker room,” Hill said before the game. “Hopefully in the second half we turn it on and get an opportunity to get into the playoffs.”

And although they have put themselves in a hole, the playoffs are still within striking distance for the Pirates, who are now 7.5 games back from a wild-card spot. They have proven capable of playing at a postseason level and have a much-needed pause to regroup on the horizon, but the key for the second half will be to find some consistency. Fortunately, Pittsburgh’s manager believes there is a simple way to achieve this.

“It’s about emphasizing that it’s a baseball game,” Shelton said prior to Wednesday night’s game. “Don’t let all the exterior stuff take away from that.”

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