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Cutch's last stand

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The Pirates need McCutchen more now than ever to stay competitive

The writing for an ugly divorce between Andrew McCutchen and the Pittsburgh Pirates is on the wall. There is no happy ending in store between the franchise and one of the most popular athletes in the city’s history, and we have known this ever since he was almost traded to the Washington Nationals this offseason. His time in Pittsburgh has an expiration date.

He was obviously and justifiably hurt by being so aggressively shopped. He came back and said the right things at the right times, not wanting to pour anymore gasoline on a fire that he helped create with an awful 2016. A strong start would have done a lot to not only help the club, but help rebuild the relationship between himself, the front office and the fans.

That was not the case. For the third straight year, he struggled out of the gate. The first month and a half of 2017 was perhaps the worst in his career. The Pirates needed his bat more than ever with Jung-Ho Kang still in Korea and Starling Marte suspended, and he could not deliver. With every time he did not deliver, the Pirates fell a little further back in the standings, increasing the likelihood he would get dealt sooner rather than later.

This is it: Cutch’s last stand. If the team doesn’t start winning soon, the prospect of Buctober is all but dead. They need his bat to win, and he was just over the Mendoza line Tuesday.

But things are finally starting to look up. With Thursday’s 10-4 victory over the first place Nationals, the Bucs are now winners in four of their last five. It’s no coincidence that we’re also starting to see life in McCutchen’s bat at the same time.

Thursday’s 2-5 performance was his second straight multi-hit performance and the fourth time in five games he either had two hits or an extra-base hit. He had been hitting the ball hard lately, and the results are finally starting to show. Statcast labels “hard contact” when the ball is hit with an exit velocity of at least 95 MPH. McCutchen was doing that less the first six weeks this year than he did in 2016 or 2015, but 14 out of the 20 balls he hit on the Bucs’ most recent road trip in LA and Arizona qualified. Four of the five balls he hit Thursday were hit hard, including three that cracked triple digits off the bat.

That hard contact with mix well with the bloops and bleeders he’s due for. Crash Davis in “Bull Durham” taught us that a .250 hitter can become a .300 hitter with just one extra cheap hit a week. By the same logic, a .250 hitter can become a .200 hitter by having one hit taken away from him. His batted ball in play average is sitting at .233, roughly 60-70 points than what the league usually hits. His worst month in 2016 was .258. He’s due at least half a hit a week to get to his low point last season.

McCutchen is arguably the most important figure in Pittsburgh baseball since Willie Stargell. Serving as the face of the franchise and their best player, the Pirates went from a midsummer distraction between Penguins and Steelers season to a competitive franchise in his time here. He won’t be a lifer, but he deserves a proper send off, not to be unceremoniously dumped at the trade deadline.

If he starts hitting and the club is able to build off of this mini hot streak and stay in the playoff hunt, he might stay. Even if he is hitting and gets traded, he can at least leave town with his head held high.

He deserves at least that.

 

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