PITTSBURGH — Back in the early days of PNC Park, the Pittsburgh Pirates were on a losing streak.
That was a common occurrence in those days. In fact, it has been a common occurrence throughout the Pirates’ 23 years of calling the North Shore ballpark home.
An intern from one of the Pittsburgh television stations decided to step on eggshells following one particular Pirates’ loss in the early 2000s – the exact year is lost in my memory among many losing evenings. The young man asked manager Lloyd McClendon if he was concerned about all the losing.
McClendon threw his hands into the air, got a look of mock horror on his face, and replied, “There’s panic in the streets.”
The Pirates’ current losing streak reached six games Saturday when they were shellacked 8-2 by the Toronto Blue Jays before a near-sellout crowd at PNC Park. The Pirates are now 20-14 following their 20-8 start, though they are still the surprise leaders in the National League Central following four straight last-place finishes in the division.
Manager Derek Shelton did not crack any jokes in his post-game news conference to lighten the mood as McClendon once did. However, Shelton also made it clear that the Pirates aren’t panicked about their skid in which they have scored eight runs in the six games, including no more than two runs in any game.
“We’ve kind of got to find our groove a little bit,” Shelton said. “We’ve been inconsistent over the last six games, but I know our guys can hit. I know our approach can be good.”
What makes the losing streak so disappointing is the Pirates played so surprisingly well to begin the season. They were playing an exciting brand of baseball that included a refreshing aggressiveness on offense.
It has often been said that any team looks dead when it is not hitting and that’s the case with the Pirates. However, the 2023 Pirates are starting to resemble the 2019-22 Pirates with poor defense, bad baserunning and mental errors.
In fact, the Pirates’ play over the past week has been unsettling while swept in a three-game series by the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg then losing the first two games of the three-game series with the Blue Jays.
The Rays and Blue Jays are two of the most talented teams in the major leagues. The gap between them and the Pirates has been on full display over the past five days.
While it was easy to get excited about the Pirates’ start, it was also foolhardy to think they could go from losing 101 games in 2021 and 100 games in 2022 to suddenly jumping into the top echelon of teams in MLB.
That is not to say the first month of the season was a 30-day mirage. The Pirates are clearly better than they have been in recent years, now possessing a roster filled with legitimate big-league players.
“We had two stretches earlier where we won a bunch of games in a row,” Shelton said. “Right now, we’re in a little bit of a funk. We just need to bounce out of it. I would say this team is better equipped to bounce out of it.”
The Pirates are.
However, these last few days have shown that they aren’t an elite team.
At least, not yet.