The Pittsburgh Pirates were making their move. They won 14 of their last 21 games before the All-Star break.
They climbed within 2 1/2 games of the National League Central lead. They went to Chicago with a chance to fly past the Cubs, who had lost 16 of their previous 28 games.
And then the Cubs swept the Pirates over the weekend at Wrigley Field to knock them 5 1/2 games off the pace. So the Pirates are feeling much urgency as they roll into town to face the Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
If they keep losing and the Cubs keep winning . . . well, the Pirates, now 44-48, can't look at it that way.
“We need to find a way to create some more momentum and get some consistency back across the board with the pitching, the fielding and the hitting," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told reporters after the Pirates fell to the Cubs 8-3 Sunday.
"We came in here with an opportunity to do something, 2 1/2 out. (Now) we’re 5 1/2 out. You just go. You go and get ready to play the Cardinals. These are men who know what’s at stake, who know how to prepare and know how to get ready.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes that the Pirates hit .316 with 74 extra-base hits and 113 runs scored while going 12-5 in their last 17 games before the break. Then the Cubs outscored them 22-10 during their sweep.
The Pirates also saw starting pitchers Jordan Lyles and Trevor Williams struggle in the last two games of the series. They can scarcely afford that.
“Division games are worth more. They’re weighted more because you’re playing against them directly,” Williams told reporters. “It’s a tough first series out of the break for us. However, we have an opportunity to go to St. Louis tomorrow and win the first one and go from there.
"We’ve got all the confidence in the world in our guys. We’ve been going on some great runs this season and in seasons prior. Once we catch fire and we get going, we can be a really fun team to watch play."
Here is what folks are writing about Our National Pastime:
Ben Lindbergh, The Ringer: "If there’s a closest MLB equivalent to the free-agent frenzy that gripped the NBA this month, it’s the trade deadline, the one event on the baseball calendar that we can still count on to motivate teams to upgrade their rosters aggressively. MLB’s offseasons are slowing, forcing some free agents to stay on the market into spring training or after the June draft, and even the December winter meetings are no longer a reliable locus of major transaction activity. But recent July 31 deadlines have been busier than ever, thanks to the second wild card keeping clubs in contention, teams’ insatiable desire for relief pitchers, and, perhaps, a stratified superteam structure that’s created a close numerical match between buyers and sellers. The 2019 deadline, now less than three weeks away, is different from past deadlines in two crucial ways, which makes this the most fascinating trade season we’ve seen in some time. The first abnormality stems from a structural change. In March, MLB and the MLB Players Association announced a series of tweaks to the rules, one of which called for the elimination of the trade waivers that formerly allowed some trades to take place between the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline and the August 31 waiver trade deadline. Because of the Byzantine waiver system, fewer swaps were completed in August than in July, when business could be conducted with fewer restrictions. But teams did continue to tinker well into the dog days and sometimes made moves that affected pennant races, swung postseason series, and recast seasons to come: Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz (August 12, 1987), Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell (August 30, 1990), Justin Verlander for a few minor leaguers who thus far haven’t amounted to much (August 31, 2017). This year, general managers won’t have the option of wheeling and dealing in August; players can’t be traded after this month, which puts pressure on teams to act now."
Jon Tayler, SI.com: "Chicago’s biggest hole is at second base, where Ben Zobrist's absence has yet to be adequately filled. The Cubs could turn to David Bote as a full-timer (why they haven’t already is honestly a mystery) or keep trying to get something out of Addison Russell and Daniel Descalso. Better would be a proven veteran like (Jonathan) Villar, who offers passable defense at two positions, solid hitting and good speed. Installing him as a regular would also free up Bote and Descalso for utility roles for which they’re better suited."
Anthony Castrovince, MLB.com: "Though the Braves added to their rotation with the Dallas Keuchel signing last month and have had a much better bullpen than it looked early in the year, Atlantans could breathe a lot easier if both areas were bolstered at this Deadline. And the good news is that the Braves are about as well-situated as any club to make upgrades. Something about (Madison) Bumgarner returning to his Southeast roots (and potentially getting a shot at the Dodgers in the postseason) feels right, as does (Will) Smith’s return to his native Georgia (don’t ever doubt his Falcons fandom). As for the Giants, it will be interesting to see what kind of haul they can get for Bumgarner, whose raw numbers are a shadow of what once was, but whose postseason pedigree is second to none."
David Schoenfield, ESPN.com: "The bigger question about the Rays: Is there enough here to catch the Yankees? Or is settling to be the best non-division winner in the American League as good as it will get in 2019? The Rays are six games back of the New York Yankees -- a 4-9 head-to-head mark against the Bombers hasn't helped -- but they begin their biggest series in years on Monday, as they head to Yankee Stadium for four games. They also play the Boston Red Sox six times by Aug. 1, so these next two-plus weeks will tell us a lot about the staying power of the Rays."
"I think what you'll learn, and what I hope to always be, is that I wanna say what I believe. And I wasn't shy in the offseason, but they came and got us. And I think that now we view ourselves as the underdogs. For the second half of this year, I think we have low expectations for what we can be. I think now we'll take the underdog role and run with it and try to prove some people wrong this year and then certainly try to improve upon it next year with that underdog in mind."
New York Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, to the New York Post, on looking ridiculous with his preseason boasting.