With seven games to play, the Pirates hold a 4.5 game lead over the Brewers for the final wild card spot. With San Francisco's loss late Sunday, the Pirates currently stand to be the host of a one game wild-card playoff, a game the city enthusiastically hosted last year.
After 2013's frenzied run to the wild card and the National League Division Series, you'd be excused for being skeptical the Bucs could do it again. Sure, they have Andrew McCutchen, but Francisco Liriano is their best starter! Pittsburgh gainfully employs Jeff Locke! The team relies on Ike Davis to play first, even though he was mummified three years ago. But Liriano has been excellent, Locke and Davis passable, and Pittsburgh has gotten exceptional and unexpected contributions from roster members new and old.
The new guys
Vance Worley was traded to the Pirates in March after one horrific season in Minnesota. In 10 starts in the Twin Cities, Worley possessed a 7.21 ERA and an opponent's batting average (.381) that made Minnesota's opposition seem like Ted Williams on loop. Pittsburgh got Worley for cash, and kept him in the minors until June.
Since making his first start on June 15, Worley has nearly been the Bucs' best pitcher. In 104 innings, Worley leads the club in ERA (2.93), WHIP (1.98), K/BB% (3.41), and his FIP (3.53) is decimal points behind Gerrit Cole's team-leading number. Worley has lowered his walks, and his GB/FB% (1.06) is the highest of his career. And after a ballooned HR/FB% last season (10.6), that number has settled down (6.4) to right near Worley's career average.
John Axford? John Axford! In the mustachioed reliever's quest to play for each playoff contender in MLB's central divisions, Axford was claimed by Pittsburgh in August. Axford, after a successful run out of the Cardinals bullpen last year, has pitched a solid 9.2 innings for the Pirates during their playoff quest. After tossing 43 average-at-best innings for Cleveland this year, Axford's small-sample-sized run in Pittsburgh has been far better, as he's struck out 12, walked four, and given up just two runs in his brief black and gold stint.
After the New York Mets gave up on Ike Davis in April, the Pirates gave the left-hander the first base job presumably on the premise that he was not Gaby Sanchez. Davis has been marginally better than the version of himself he was last season in New York (and just marginally better than Sanchez), with an average in the .230's (instead of toeing .200), and 30 fewer strikeouts in a few more at-bats. Davis, it seems, will never hit 30 homers like he did in 2012, but the big guy still remains a sneaky threat to plunk a one in the Allegheny.
The old guy
After a couple years worth of playing all over the diamond (even pitching!), non-Pittsburghians would be forgiven for not knowing Josh Harrison. In 2014, the utilityman and former bit player has reinvented himself. Still playing all over the diamond -- logging innings at third, second, shortstop, left- and right-field -- Harrison has been the Pirates' offensive difference maker all year. He leads the league with a .318 average, he's on base at a .350 clip, and is slugging .500, nearly 100 points better than his previous career high (.408). Harrison has hit 13 bombs, stolen 17 bags, and rarely strikes out. So while he's not a new guy to the squad, Josh Harrison is certainly new to the list of "most important players on a playoff team."