Winning streak has Bucs in a tough spot


Associated Press

PITTSBURGH

The Pittsburgh Pirates pay Felipe Vazquez millions of dollars to close out games. It’s a great way to make a living. It just doesn’t happen to be the All-Star reliever’s favorite thing about his gig.

Vazquez’s biggest perk comes in a giddy postgame clubhouse, when “DJ Nightmare” flips on his portable turntable, his teammates throw on masks and one of the National League’s hottest — if most enigmatic — teams lets loose.

Over the course of the season, the playlist has changed to better reflect the varying tastes of the group. Some days it’s country. Some days it’s techno. Some days it’s hip-hop. On nights he’s not working — and there’s been little for Vazquez to do during a 13-2 surge that has thrust the Pirates back into the National League playoff picture — he’ll spend the ninth inning mulling his options.

“I can’t wait to get in and get going,” Vazquez said on Thursday before the Pirates opened a four-game series against the New York Mets.

Or, more importantly, keep it going.

Pittsburgh’s longest winning streak in 22 years — an 11-game sprint sandwiching the All-Star break that ended with a loss in Cleveland on Wednesday — placed the Pirates in the middle of a crowded playoff race. Ten NL teams entered Thursday at .500 or better. Five reach the postseason. That’s a densely populated neighborhood, though one that manager Clint Hurdle says “is a better neighborhood than the one we were in.”

It also makes the math a little tricky for general manager Neal Huntington, who took responsibility for a six-week swoon that had Pittsburgh sitting at 40-48 heading into its final nine games before the All-Star break. Huntington suggested if there was ever time for an 8-1 run, that was it. And here’s the thing: He got it.

Now, a club that looked like a seller at next week’s non-waiver trade deadline could be a buyer. Maybe. Money could be tight. Attendance is down 15 percent from 2017 and 30 percent from 2015, when the Pirates won 98 games to reach the playoffs for the third straight season. Pittsburgh has never been eager to splurge. And yet its recent run didn’t have the hallmarks of a fluke.

The Pirates swept Milwaukee and Cincinnati and took two of three from Cleveland and Washington, outscoring them by a combined 80-36. Their 43 runs after the All-Star break are tops in the NL. The starting rotation has a 2.48 ERA since July 8. They trailed for all of two innings during their 11-game streak. The outfield leads the NL in slugging percentage and batting average. First baseman Josh Bell is hitting .444 over his last 10 games.

The turnaround has been abrupt and decisive. Now the front office needs to figure out what to do about it. Hold onto veterans like second baseman Josh Harrison and shortstop Jordy Mercer — both of whom are over 30 and make a combined $17 million with contracts that are close to expiring — or flip them to contenders while looking for prospects under team control into the next decade?

“There’s never an easy decision whichever way you go,” Harrison said.

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