How the Pittsburgh Pirates Overtook the Phillies as PA's Baseball Power

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor IJuly 2, 2013

Tuesday evening's battle of the Keystone State in Pittsburgh will pit one of the best teams in the National League against an under-.500 group with questions around the diamond and in the front office.

For years, making the distinction between the franchises described above was remarkably simple, but the tide has shifted in Pennsylvania. In both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the times have changed.

Heading into this week's series, the Pittsburgh Pirates are pacing the National League, recently becoming the first team to reach 50 wins. Not only is the team on pace to blaze past the .500 mark for the first time in over two decades, but Clint Hurdle's group is on pace to win 100 games.

According to Baseball Prospectus' updated playoff odds, the Pirates have a 94.2 percent chance of playing postseason baseball this October:

Meanwhile, things in Philadelphia are a mess. Speculation around the future of Charlie Manuel has encircled the clubhouse, Ruben Amaro Jr. refuses to acknowledge the need to rebuild, and the roster looks inept and unable to compete for much beyond another 81-81 finish.

According to Baseball Prospectus' updated playoff odds, the Phillies have a 2.1 percent chance of playing postseason baseball this October.

Remarkably, these roles were reversed recently. From 2007-2011, the Phillies were the class of the National League, winning at least 89 games in every season, reeling off five consecutive NL East titles, three trips to the National League Championship Series, two World Series appearances and, of course, a world championship in 2008.

On the opposite side of the state and baseball spectrum were the Pirates. Baseball's laughingstock hasn't produced a winning club since Barry Bonds suited up and played left field for the Bucs.

Despite promising starts in 2011 and 2012, the club fizzled in the second half, failing once again to crack the 81-win mark.

While it's easy to believe that 2013 has been the season where baseball in Pennsylvania was turned upside down, the seeds for the rise of the Pirates and the fall of the Phillies have been in place for years.

Despite playing awful baseball against most of the league, Pittsburgh has actually been able to go toe-to-toe with the big, bad Phillies for years. Since 2007, Philadelphia has won just 21 of the 40 contests with their cross-state rival. That record has dropped to 10-13 since 2010.

Although the Phillies are down now, they haven't been bad for a long time. Last season, despite failing to live up to expectations, they finished at .500. In 2011, the team set a franchise record for wins with 102 in the regular season. But the tipping point in the Pennsylvania rivalry may have occurred that summer, in spite of the 30 victories that separated the teams in the NL standings.

Over the last three seasons, the respective win totals for each franchise has resembled stocks plummeting and rising simultaneously.

Philadelphia: 102, 81, 39
Pittsburgh: 72, 79, 51

Despite the gigantic discrepancy in 2011 victories, it's not crazy to think that the Pirates' three-year win total will match or exceed Philadelphia's by the end of this season.

The summer of 2011 may feel like ages ago for these respective fans, but it was just two years ago that the tides shifted.

Baseball fans may not have read the writing on the wall, but the Phillies' window for winning another title was slamming shut. The image of Ryan Howard writhing in pain after rupturing his Achilles tendon was the straw that broke the back of Philadelphia's dominance.

Despite 102 wins, signs of decline in Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Roy Oswalt and the intense workload for Roy Halladay created a perfect storm that would rob the Phillies of their ability heading into 2012.

Meanwhile, the 2011 Pirates endured a disastrous August and September in the wake of a blown call at home plate during an epic late-July affair in Atlanta.

As Pittsburgh fell from first place to 72-90, the baseball world forgot about the Pirates once again when the calender turned to autumn. But that masked the bigger point in Pittsburgh: In Clint Hurdle's first year at the helm, in which he justly received NL Manager of the Year votes, the team improved by 15 wins from 2010.

The emergence of Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez's first big league cup of coffee, the drafting of Gerrit Cole with the top overall pick, Philadelphia's failure to recognize what it had with Jason Grilli in Triple-A and and Hurdle's attitude engulfed the franchise, setting the team up for another run at .500 in 2012 and for its leap here in 2013.

It's likely that the Phillies aren't this bad and the Pirates aren't this good, but heading into this week's series in Pittsburgh, one thing is clear for baseball fans in the state of Pennsylvania: The team to watch resides on the west side of the state.


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