Pirates ready to supplant Cardinals as best in baseball

Alan Truex 

As baseball enters its unofficial second half, its best team may be, if you can believe this, the Pittsburgh Pirates.  I know, it’s as if Greece is suddenly the world’s No. 1 economy.

These are the Pirates who in 2012 set a futility record for American sports teams with  their 20th consecutive losing season.  The franchise that produced such legends as Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell fell behind a hockey team, the Penguins, in local popularity.

Pittsburgh made the playoffs the past two years but did not get past the wild-card round. And this season did not begin well: the Pirates were 21-23 on May 19.  By the end of June they were nine games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central.

But they were a major-league-best 27-11 in June and July.  And by beating St. Louis in three out of four at PNC Park just prior to Tuesday’s All-Star Game, the Pirates closed to within 2 ½ games of first place.

It was an exceptionally dramatic series, with the final two games reaching extra innings on national television.

When Andrew McCutchen homered in the 14th to tie Sunday’s game, some long-denied fans were seen crying.  They’ve invested their love, time and money.  This small-market team is averaging crowds of nearly 29,000 a game. 

There’s every reason to think the Pirates can keep up with the Cardinals, who have the majors’ best record (56-33) despite season-ending injuries to ace pitcher Adam Wainwright and cleanup batter Matt Adams.

Explaining how his Pirates were able to climb back into the race, manager Clint Hurdle said, “Grit, determination, perseverance.  When something doesn’t go right, you keep playing the game.”

Those same words could be said for the Cardinals.  Their manager, Mike Matheny, has done an equally commendable job of maintaining an upbeat mood while injuries mount.

The Cardinals see their fortunes rising again with left fielder Matt Holliday, their No. 3 hitter, expected back this weekend after missing five weeks with an injury to the right quad.

Jordan Walden, their setup reliever, is expected to return by the end of the month, allowing Kevin Siegrist to return to his usual role, in which he excels, as left-handed relief specialist.  Starter Jaime Garcia also should be reactivated by then.

Both St Louis and Pittsburgh have superb pitching staffs, ranking 1-2 in the majors with ERAs of 2.71 and 2.86 respectively.  

Both clubs have overpowering No. 1 starters  – the Cards’ Michael Wacha (perhaps even an upgrade from Wainwright) and Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole, who leads the bigs with 13 wins.  Either seems capable of the sort of playoff dominance shown by San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner last fall.

Pittsburgh and St. Louis both have three excellent starters but could use a fourth for the playoffs.  The postseason may depend on who can add that fourth starter before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Both teams are likely to enter the Cole Hamels Sweepstakes.  Hamels is 31 and signed for three years ($24 million per) after this one.  He’s not having one of his better seasons, but 5-7 with a 3.63 ERA and 123 strikeouts for sad sack Philly is more than respectable.

A team with money to spend that’s thinking World Series – Cardinals, Astros, Dodgers, Yankees, Jays – will be willing to absorb the max contract and hope they haven’t emptied the vault for Justin Verlander. 

The Pirates and Cardinals – along with the Dodgers and Astros — are well stocked in farmhands to put together a trade package appealing to the rebuilding Phillies.

Perhaps even more attractive than Hamels is Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto, with his 2.73 ERA.  Cueto is 29 and earning a reasonable $7.4 million.  He’s a free agent at the end of the season, which could make him the ideal Rent-a-Pitcher.

Except for one thing.  His dugout meltdown Sunday (knocked over a Gatorade cooler after being lifted from a game down 8-1) cast doubts on his mental makeup.  

His postseason record – 0-2, 5.19 ERA, casts further doubt.  Is he someone you can count on when the pressure is greatest?

San Diego’s James Shields is a not-so-poor man’s Cole Hamels.  He’s a proven big-gamer who’s 33 and having a so-so year:  7-3, 4.01 ERA.   He’s tied to a $21-million-a-year contract through 2018.  There won’t be a stampede to take on that burden, although the fact that he’s struck out 131 in 116 innings proves his arm is plenty strong.

Pittsburgh’s advantage against St. Louis is more upside on offense, with fewer bats for sale than arms.

McCutchen, after a slow start, is pounding the ball unlike anyone in St. Louis.  Most years a player with an on-base average of .392 who’s slugging .500 and playing Gold Glove defense would be contending for MVP, which he won in 2013.

But Washington’s Bryce Harper with a ridiculous .464/.704 sabermetric has all but locked up that award at midseason.  No one at age 22 has ever put up numbers like his.

When Gregory Palanco drove in Sunday’s winning run for Pittsburgh, hope arose that this promising 23-year-old right fielder is finding his stride.  He’s strong and fast (6-5, 230 pounds, 17 stolen bases in the half-season), and his minor-league tab suggests he should hit much better than his current .237.

Meanwhile, St. Louis has gaping holes at first base and center field, where Mark Reynolds (replacing Adams) and Jon Jay have combined for 52 RBI.

This is not a buyer’s market for big bats.  Most teams delude themselves into thinking they’re still in the race.  They’re not ready to rebuild.  At the breakpoint only 8 of the 32 big-league clubs were more than 9 games out of first place – never mind wild cards.

The Pirates have the combination of veterans and youth and speed and power to prevail against the traditionally powerful but aging Cardinals (four consecutive trips to the NLCS).  However, the schedule does favor St. Louis.  In the Cardinals’ first 22 games after the All-Star break, only four are against winning teams.

If the Pirates are going to fly a pennant next to their jolly roger, they must continue playing their best ball as they exit the break.  At the moment they have the National League’s best roster – perhaps even the grittiest — but trades and injuries could alter their course.

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