Are the Pittsburgh Pirates for real?

A.J. Burnett is one reason the Pirates are in the hunt in the NL Central. (The Associated Press)
A.J. Burnett is one reason the Pirates are in the hunt in the NL Central. (The Associated Press)

After a marvelous first half, the Pittsburgh Pirates enter the All-Star Break 56-37, just one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. The plucky Pirates have the second best record in the league, third best in the major leagues, and are on pace for 98 wins. They’ve put themselves in great position to reach the postseason and make a run at capturing the club’s first World Series title since 1979.

But instead of rallying around their hometown heroes, Pirates fans have been cautiously optimistic. Even with a winning team and a beautiful ballpark, Pittsburgh ranks 12th out of the National League’s 15 teams in attendance. All those empty seats indicate Steel City residents haven’t  warmed up to to their team’s torrid start yet. Maybe it’s because they’ve seen this movie twice before, so they know how it ends: badly.

In 2011, the Pirates were leading the NL Central on July 26. They promptly lost 12 of 13 and were the worst team in baseball the rest of the way, allowing more runs than every team except the Baltimore Orioles. Pittsburgh skidded to the finish line and wound up with 90 losses.

Last year was even more frustrating after the Bucs went 16 games over .500 on Aug. 8. They were in second place in the NL Central, with a 3 1/2-game lead for the second wild card spot and 74.6 percent chance of making the playoffs. Then the wheels fell off. From that point forward, they were the worst team in the National League, going 16-36 down the stretch and blowing another shot at a .500 season.

The Pirates are no strangers to teasing the baseball world for a few months only to collapse in the dog days of summer and remind everyone why they haven’t had a winning season since Barry Bonds blew town after 1992.

In 2013, the Pirates have a new franchise outfielder — Andrew McCutchen — but the reason they’re excelling is their top-notch pitching, both in the rotation and in the bullpen. No team has been better at preventing runs than the Pirates, who lead the majors in ERA, shutouts and fewest hits allowed.

It all starts with the starting pitching, which has been surprisingly excellent. Ace A.J. Burnett ranks second in the league in strikeouts per nine innings behind only Matt HarveyJeff Locke came out of nowhere to make the All-Star team and Francisco Liriano rediscovered the brilliance from his early days with Minnesota. The future appears bright for rookie call-up Gerritt Cole, who has yet to surrender more than three runs in any of his starts. 

As good as the starting rotation has been, the bullpen’s been even better. There are no holes in Pittsburgh’s ‘pen, which sports a shiny 2.78 ERA. First-time All-Star Jason Grilli (Joel Hanrahan‘s replacement) has emerged as baseball’s best closer. His setup man, Mark Melancon, has put his awful year with Bobby Valentine‘s Boston Red Sox behind him and is untouchable. Middle relievers Justin WilsonVin Mazzaro, Tony Watson and Bryan  Morris have been just as tremendous.

Still, the Pirates are not as good as their record suggests. The offense is mediocre and thin, relying too much on McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Starling Marte. Several overachieving pitchers, including Locke (4.25 xFIP), are bound to regress, and the bullpen is going to hit a rough patch sooner or later. Manager Clint Hurdle has pushed all the right buttons so far, but at some point, that luck is going to run out.

Pirates fans are wise not to jump on the bandwagon just yet. October is a long ways away, and they know a whole lot can go wrong between now and then.

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