Not long ago, I wrote a story about Pedro Alvarez and how he could be the key piece to helping the Pittsburgh Pirates finally finish a season with a winning record. That jinx obviously worked as El Toro proceeded to go hitless in his next six games and finished with a .207 average in May.
But that hasn’t stopped the Buccos from competing in the National League Central and giving themselves a shot of ending the season above .500. This team was in a similar position last year before falling, but you would have to think that being back in it this year means progress has been made.
The majority of progress has been with the pitching staff, which ranks fifth in the National League in ERA at 3.49. And more precisely, it’s due to James McDonald becoming the staff ace. He’s gone 8-3 in 16 starts this year, posting 11 quality starts.
The resurgence of A.J. Burnett moving over to the NL has also helped the Pirates keep their heads above water. After missing the beginning of the season with an eye injury, Burnett has been solid in 13 starts with a 3.31 ERA and is 9-2. If you take away his start on May 2 against the Cardinals, in which he gave up 12 runs in 2.2 innings, his ERA is 2.05.
Even better has been the help of the bullpen, which is currently tied for the best ERA in the NL at 2.71 with the Cincinnati Reds, the team they’re chasing in the Central and only trail by one game.
The Pirates have at least 30 appearances from six different pitchers out of the bullpen. Four of those six — Jason Grilli (2.05), Joel Hanrahan (2.10), Jared Hughes (2.20) and Juan Cruz (2.63) — all have an ERA below three.
Grilli has been dominant, striking out 48 batters in 30.2 innings for a K/9 ratio of 14.09, which is seventh best in the league among relievers.
The offense has picked it up a bit as of late. Alvarez bounced back with a nice June, hitting .262 with seven home runs, 20 RBIs and 16 runs scored.
But the real catalyst of the Pirates offense has been the team’s All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen. In June, he batted .370 with seven home runs and 26 RBIs, while scoring 19 runs with an OBP of .420.
After hitting just .254 through May, Walker saw his average shoot up as high as .279 at the beginning of June before finishing off the month at .269. While his power numbers still aren’t there, he scored 20 runs in June and drove in 17. He has back-to-back multi-hit games to start the month of July.
Jones and McGehee combined to go 44-149 (.295) with 10 home runs, 31 RBIs and 27 runs in the month of June. Those are huge contributions from guys down in the order that you don’t typically expect much from.
As you might imagine from those numbers, the Pirates had a pretty good June, going 17-10 and picking up two games on the Reds, while passing the Cardinals to move into second place in the division. They are currently tied with the Dodgers for the top spot in the wild card race.
They were 43-41 on July 3 last season. This year they are 43-36 as we approach the All-Star break.
Things are changing in Pittsburgh, and I think the fans and players can tell this year is going to be different. I watched one of their home games recently and the atmosphere is different. These players expect to win and they know the opportunity is there. The first step is making sure they secure that winning season, but a shot at a division crown may still be in sight.