The first month of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ season has defied conventional wisdom.
The Pirates are 20-9 coming out of Monday’s off day and leading the National League Central. The St. Louis Cardinals, the consensus preseason favorite to win the division, are already 10 games behind the Pirates in the standings.
Try to let that rattle around in your head for a minute. The Pirates are 10 games better than the Cardinals a month into the season after four straight last-place finishes in the division and back-to-back seasons with at least 100 losses.
There are plenty of other things the Pirates have done that can make someone shake their head – in a good way, for a change, rather than negatively.
However, for the sake of brevity, let’s cut to the chase and move on to something else that no one could have predicted just a month ago.
When the Pirates open a three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, it will be a matchup between the teams with the two best records in the major leagues.
The Rays have a 23-6 mark. Combined, they and the Pirates have a .741 winning percentage.
Baseball logic says that there is no such thing as a big series at the beginning of May, even after a very merry month of April, and that’s probably so. However, this sure feels like a big series for the Pirates.
Some observers thought the Pirates’ series with the Los Angeles Dodgers last week at PNC Park was a statement series. Yet while the Pirates taking two of three games from a team that had a 111-win season in 2022 was impressive, the 2023 Dodgers are clearly not the juggernaut of a year ago.
The series this week at The Trop probably isn’t a statement series, either, but it will serve as a good measuring stick for the Pirates.
The Rays lead the major leagues in runs scored with 6.72 a game. They are also tops in ERA with a 3.10 mark. Their run differential is a staggering +103 over 29 games.
Furthermore, the Rays have hit the most home runs in the big leagues with 61. They have allowed just 19, the fewest in Major League Baseball.
The Pirates also have some notable statistics, including an MLB-best 41 stolen bases in 50 attempts. That works out to an outstanding success rate of 82.0%.
The Rays are the franchise every small-market team tries to emulate. Despite annually having one of the lowest attendances at Tropicana Field along with one of the lowest payrolls, the Rays have been to the postseason each of the last four years.
Furthermore, since their surprise run from laughingstock to American League champions in 2008, the Rays have reached the playoff eight times in the last 15 years. They have done so despite being the only MLB franchise to have a home stadium with a permanent roof, not exactly the kind of place where fans want to flock – despite some very good concession stands.
Despite playing in a beautiful ballpark with stunning views since 2001, the Pirates have managed just three playoff appearances in the last 30 seasons. They have had eight winning seasons since 1984, a span of nearly four decades.
General manager Ben Cherington looks like he is beginning to crack the small-market code for success in his fourth season on the job. Time will tell whether the Pirates will reach the Rays’ level of sustained winning.
The Pirates will get a first-hand look at what they aspire to be this week. It might not be a big series, but it should be interesting.