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Andrew McCutchen is on pace to grab the NL MVP award, but has eyes only for a division title with his team.
On July 18, 2011, the Pirates were sitting pretty at 50-44. One of baseball's endearing surprises, Pittsburgh took the driver's seat in the NL Central on the strength of a solid pitching staff and the NL's second-best road record.
One week later, the Pirates were still clinging to first place in a three-headed sprint atop the division, but the wheels were about to come exploding off the wagon.
Less than two weeks later, the Pirates had lost 12 of 13 games, including 10 in a row, and sat 10, yes 10, games out of first.
That 2011 iteration of the Pirates simply was not equipped or deep enough to hold off two more experienced teams and win a heated division race. The pitching staff fell apart, the lineup was one of the NL's most anemic, and the stink of 18 consecutive losing seasons combined to wilt the upstart Pirates.
That losing seasons streak is now at 19, and the Pirates are back atop the NL Central as the second half dawns. Still one of the worst offenses in baseball, the team has succeeded because of a fantastic starting rotation and stout bullpen.
The starting rotation, led by sensational performances from James McDonald and A.J. Burnett, ranks 10th in ERA and eighth in HR/FB rate.
The bullpen, which is the ninth-most used in terms of innings pitched, has stranded the highest rate of baserunners in the majors at 81.9 percent. Some might attribute that to good luck, but closer Joel Hanrahan and setup men Jason Grilli and Juan Cruz have shown no underlying indicators of inflated stats to contradict their results.
The bullpen's ability to hold leads is magnified by an offense that just can't score runs, ranking in the bottom third of the league in most offensive categories. Grilli is second in baseball with 21 holds as part of a unit that leads the league with 57 holds as a team, while Hanrahan has been the primary performer in a closer role that has blown only five saves against 29 saves.
So can the Pirates win their first division title in over 20 years behind a stellar bullpen and a potential MVP batsman? Things certainly couldn't have gone any better for them in the first half, right?
In terms of pitching, yes, the results were about as positive as Clint Hurdle could have asked for. Even still, a resurgent Burnett isn't exactly far-fetched, especially in a pitcher-friendly PNC Park and division. Jeff Karstens, who posted a 3.38 ERA in 26 starts in 2011, has only made six starts and has the look of a No. 3 starter for the second half.
In terms of hitting, no, things did not go very well aside from Andrew McCutchen's brilliance. Neil Walker has a 12-game hitting streak and a recent 5 for 5 game to his credit, which has added nearly 30 points to his now .291 average. The Pirates kept churning out wins despite his slow start and the inconsistency of talented prospect Pedro Alvarez.
If just a few Bucs get it going at the plate and McCutchen continues his evisceration tour, I very much see this team sticking in the NL Central race.
I am buying the Pirates as a first place team, even with the dreadful memory of 2011 still fresh in my mind.