Don’t look now, but once again the Pittsburgh Pirates are in contention to win the National League Central at the All-Star Break. The Pirates sit at 49-39, one game behind the division leading Cincinnati Reds. Last season, Pittsburgh took a 47-43 record into the 2nd half only to go 19-43 and finish 72-90.
Flip the page forward a year, and this Pirates team is out to prove it is for real. The season started out looking like the Pirates offense was well on its way to set records for being the worst offense in quite some time. In the month of April, the Pirates hit an abysmal .228 and only scored 58 runs. In May, the offense slumped to an even worse .210. However, as bad as the Pirates offense was, their pitching saved the season.
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A.J. Burnett and James McDonald quickly evolved as the aces of the staff and helped keep the Pirates around .500. Burnett has a 10-3 record and a 3.78 ERA. McDonald, not to be outdone by his mentor posted a 9-3 record and a 2.59 ERA.
The bullpen was fantastic in the first half as well. Joel Hanrahan has converted 24 of 27 save attempts. Jason Grilli has evolved into one of the best set-up men in the game. Jared Hughes, Juan Cruz, Chris Resop, Tony Watson and the newest weapon Brad Lincoln have been excellent. The Pirates bullpen is second in the National League with a 2.72 ERA.
The Pirates offense soon caught up to the quality of the pitching staff in June. You can not talk about the offense without talking about Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen carried the offense in April and May and has not slowed down one bit. McCutchen is having a monster MVP-type season. He leads the team in every major offensive category. McCutchen leads the majors in average with .371 average, 21 home runs and 64 RBIs.
Another reason for the Pirates offensive explosion in June is the production of Garrett Jones, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker. Jones is hitting .267 with 12 home runs. Alvarez has finally found some consistency and has 17 home runs with 51 RBIs.
The hottest Pirate right now outside of McCutchen may be Walker. Walker was hitting .256 on June 27 and is now hitting .293 during a 15-game hit streak. Walker closed out the first half in fashion going 5-for-5 with a home run and a double against the San Francisco Giants.
The Bucs are also getting contributions from the likes of Casey McGehee, Michael McKenry and MLB journeyman Drew Sutton. As they call him in Pittsburgh, “The Fort” McKenry has been solid, providing seven home runs from the catching position.
The biggest difference and reason to believe a collapse will not happen again is that this team has legit starting pitching with Burnett, McDonald and Jeff Karstens. If the back end of the rotation with Kevin Correia and Erik Bedard can be average, the Pirates have a shot to do something special. They have an MVP candidate in McCutchen and an offense that has finally started to come around. It has a dominant bullpen at the back end of games it can rely on. More importantly, this team has a manager in Clint Hurdle who has instilled a winning mentality in the clubhouse.
The second half schedule is much more favorable than the first. The Pirates will play the first 19 games of the second half against teams below .500. The Pirates also play the Cubs, Astros and Padres (the bottom three teams in the National League) 29 times.
This team has had many magical and defining moments in the first half. You could start with the opening weekend and the two walk-offs wins over the Phillies or the Rod Barajas walk-off home run against the Nationals. You could point to the series win in Milwaukee, where the Pirates had been awful. How about when the Pirates were in Cincinnati, and after a Hanrahan blown save, Clint Barmes and McKenry hit back to back doubles to rally for a win off Reds dominant closer Aroldis Chapman?
Maybe the most magical moment of the first half was Sutton, who had been with three teams already in 2012, found a home in Pittsburgh and hit a walk-off home run to cap a comeback against the Houston Astros. Finally, how about Burnett walking off the mound on the Sunday against the Giants before the break to a thunderous ovation and raising his fist high in the air.
The Pirates are believing, the city of Pittsburgh is believing, they are just waiting on the rest of the world to catch up. In the meantime, keep throwing up the “Zoltan” Pittsburgh and enjoy the ride.