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Despite snapping skid, Pirates’ playoff hopes appear all but shot

Their recent swoon has the Pirates likely dead in the water as far as the playoffs are concerned. What made Pittsburgh fall out of the postseason race?

The wild-card game has been a mixed bag for the Pirates the last two years. On the one hand, playoff baseball! It’s nice to have that back in Pittsburgh after a long drought. On the other hand, a five-hit shutout loss to Jake Arrieta and the Cubs last season, and a four-hit shutout loss to Madison Bumgarner and the Giants in 2014. The secret to wild card success, it seems, is to avoid National League aces.

But there is no doubting that these wild card losses have at least inspired some confidence in the Pirates. At some point, maybe even this year, they would get over the hump.

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And while the Pirates were not able to compete with the Cubs this season, they’ve long been in the wild card hunt. On July 30, they were 52–50, battling with the Mets and Cardinals for the second wild card spot. On Aug. 28, after a sweep of the Brewers, the Buccos were 67–61, right in the thick of the wild card battle.

Pittsburgh entered Wednesday at 67–69, 5.5 games back of St. Louis for the second wild card. Even though it beat the Cardinals 4–3 Wednesday night, snapping an eight-game losing streak, there’s more than enough reasons to believe that the team is dead as far as the postseason’s concerned.

You can start with Andrew McCutchen. Despite hitting 20 homers, his WAR is -0.4. Last season, it was 4.9. The year before that, it was 6.3. McCutchen, 29, is below his career average in every major category. One more example: In the last three seasons, the center fielder has averaged 37 doubles. This year? Just 21.

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Or maybe you should start with the loss of Neil Walker. Walker, traded to the Mets in the off-season, batted .268/.328/.427 for the Pirates last season. The 30-year-old Pittsburgh native was a fan favorite, and his production has not been matched. Josh Harrison has gotten the majority of the starts at second base this year and he’s batted .278/.305/.377—far off his .315/.341/.490 line in 2014 that made him an All-Star and saw him finish ninth in the MVP voting.

Or maybe it’s best to look at the bullpen. The Pirates traded closer Mark Melancon to the Nationals on July 30. It was a move that indicated selling, but as the Yankees have shown, sending off closers doesn’t necessarily mean you’re throwing in the towel. Since that trade, though, the Pirates have lost three games that they’ve led after seven innings. And Tuesday night’s implosion was historic. Up a run and one out away from a win, the Pirates allowed the Cardinals to become the first team since 1961 to be trailing with two outs in the ninth, then hit three homers in that inning to win. Season: effectively over.

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Is this the end of this version of the Pirates? The team that came out of nowhere in 2013 to make the playoffs just three years after finishing 57–105? With the face-of-the-franchise McCutchen, a stellar bullpen and a slew of homegrown talent, they were the Cubs before the Cubs. Now, they’ll likely be watching in October, wondering, what if.

There is talent aplenty on this team, provided that McCutchen’s down year is limited to just one season. The pitching is strong with Gerrit Cole and Jameson Tallion, and even a revitalized Ivan Nova. Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Josh Bell are set for major 2017 impacts.

But there’s a bit of tarnish on the black and gold, a simmering feeling that change is afoot. The Pirates had chances, but the inability to crash through the dual wall of Arrieta and Bumgarner could end up being a big wasted opportunity.