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These Pirates are elite … in one category


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Kevin Newman slides safely into second with a stolen base during the Pirates' 6-3 win Wednesday over the Giants – AP

SAN FRANCISCO -- What if I told you these 2019 Pirates are actually really, really good? Like, best-in-the-National-League good?

It's true ... as long as their opponent is bad — like these tGiants, who are now 70-76 after losing to the Pirates, 6-3, Wednesday night at Oracle Park.

So let's have a little fun with numbers.

Against teams with a losing record (on the year, not at the time they played) the Pirates are 37-16, a .698 winning percentage that ranks No. 1 in the National League and fourth across MLB.

Have a look for yourself:

Check out their company there in the top 10: The Twins, the Yankees, the Astros, the Indians. Great teams. Playoff teams. And if you stretch the data a bit further, the top 13 teams there have winning records.

Except the Pirates, of course.

So the dichotomy strikes when you analyze the team's record against teams over .500. The results are equally dramatic — just in the other direction.

The Pirates are 27-66 against winning teams, a .290 clip. That's pretty gross. It's the worst in the National League and the fourth-worst in all of baseball. Unfortunately for the Pirates, the Cardinals, Brewers and Cubs all have winning records within the division.

This team can't play the Rockies and the Giants every day, a point not lost on Clint Hurdle. I brought it up with him after Wednesday's win, and he had a chuckle before elaborating:

"It does say that, you know, against our own level, yeah, we've created some separation," Hurdle was saying. "Your goal is to have separation when you play teams with better, winning records. Obviously.

"So there's some good being done, we're huntin' some good, but there's more out there for us to get done. That's for sure."

Yeah, like winning more than three out of every 10 games against above-.500 teams.

• Dario Agrazal was money through four innings, allowing zero runs and just one hit while striking out two.

Then came the fifth.

Single. Walk. Single. Fielder's choice and error on Kevin Newman:

The shutout went "poof" and so did Agrazal's night. He was yanked there in favor of Michael Feliz.

"Part of the mission was to attack the zone," Agrazal was telling me of that fifth. "That's what I was trying to do. There were a few challenges. Some things didn't work out our way but we were able to come out with the victory, and that's all I care about right now."

Fair. Extremely fair, actually, considering the totality of his outing. He stumbled late, but his stuff to that point was encouraging.

"There's a lot we liked," Hurdle said. "He's still growing, and after the leadoff hitter [Mike Yastrzemski] gets the single, he got on a nice roll ... First-pitch strikes were good. His mix was good. He was a little unpredictable."

• Even better than Agrazal? The bullpen.

Feliz: One inning pitched, zero earned runs, zero hits, two walks, two strikeouts.

Keone Kela: One inning pitched, zero earned runs, zero hits, no walks, one strikeout.

Richard Rodriguez: One inning pitched, zero earned runs, zero hits, two strikeouts, no walks.

Francisco Liriano: One inning pitched, zero earned runs, zero hits, one strikeout, no walks.

Felipe Vazquez: One inning pitched, zero earned runs, zero hits, one strikeout, no walks across a six-pitch save, his 27th of the year.

Combined, that 5 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 7 K.

That's domination, especially when you consider Feliz inherited a bases-loaded mess from Agrazal and kept things afloat, allowing the Pirates to maintain a 4-3 lead heading into the sixth.

"We talked about it last night, the way they've been pushing it forward and have been picking each other up in different situations," Hurdle said. "We've actually had three guys we've used in this little surge with runners on base, whether it's Rodriguez, Feliz or [Yacksel Rios] ...

"Rodriguez, he continues to show up. You look at the appearances that he and Liriano have made because they've been here all year. And even Feliz, the amount of work he's done since he's been here. It's been impressive, and they're continuing to stay strong and continue to show up."

• Vazquez made headlines this week for all the wrong reasons, getting in a clubhouse fight with Kyle Crick that ultimately ended Crick's season and resulted in fines for both men. Vazquez has declined to comment on the incident, but his work on the mound continues to speak loudly.

Monday, just hours after the fight, he recorded his 26th save of the year in the team's 6-4, comeback win. Wednesday, he one-upped himself, registering No. 27 with a masterful performance. Two pitches in, Vazquez had two outs. Then a four-pitch strikeout sealed it.

"Everybody on our team wants to see him pitch the ninth inning," Hurdle said. "... He's one of the elite closers in the game. And very rarely do you see two pitches, two outs ... That quick of an inning for him has been somewhat of an outlier, but then you look at the velocity and the finish and the punchout of the last hitter. It's strong."

• The Pirates put up six runs — and that's with Bryan Reynolds going 0 for 5 and Josh Bell going 0 for 4 with a walk. The team got clutch pinch-hits from Cole Tucker, who drove in Pablo Reyes (who walked in pinch-hitting duties to set the stage) as well as a 2-for-4 night from Jose Osuna and RBIs from Colin MoranAdam Frazier, Elias Diaz and Kevin Kramer.

That's some teamwork.

"I actually heard them celebrating the other guys tonight," Hurdle said. "That's the other thing they're learning: They don't need to look around and count on one guy, you know? What each guy needs to do is bring his lunch pail and show up that day and do his job, do his work."

That's precisely what Tucker did with that RBI in the sixth:

"It's a thrill any time you get to be in a game, but to have some hard contact and be able to show off your speed and run around the bases like an idiot is always really fun," Tucker was saying at his locker after the game.

Then there's that larger point, Tucker being part of a collective that comes in and does its work and puts runs on the board if and when the stars struggle. Tucker was telling me about that total-team mentality:

"It breeds confidence," Tucker was saying. "... It could be Steven Baron tomorrow and you never know, and we're excited for the next person to have the opportunity and we're persistent as hell in here, and we just know that whoever it is is going to step up."

• Reynolds Watch: With his 0-for-5 night, Reynolds' average dipped to .326. NL leader Anthony Rendon also struggled, going 0 for 4, but his .333 average continues to lead the pack. Christian Yelich (.329) is out for the year after suffering a knee injury Tuesday night and in a second-place tie with Ketel Marte. 

• Joe Musgrove will get the start tomorrow in the series finale against the Giants. He's battled right foot discomfort and missed his last start. He's back Thursday, though, and he sounds ready to bounce back and to get back in his rhythm.

"I gained a little bit of confidence when the doctors told me I can't really further damage it," Musgrove was saying at his locker after the game. "It's just kind of a pain-tolerance thing, and I got a pretty good pain tolerance."

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