In a division loaded with offensive firepower and the National League's Most Valuable Player each of the last three seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates were expected to be nothing more than a blip on the radar for the 2011 baseball season.
The St. Louis Cardinals, led by Albert Pujols and pitchers Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia, were expected to be division contenders.
The Cincinnati Reds' one-two punch of Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, last year's NL MVP, along with a young pitching staff that includes Aroldis Chapman and his 106 mph fastball were expected to be division contenders as well.
But the Pittsburgh Pirates as division contenders?
No way. A team that hasn't had a winning season in 18 years, has no real MVP candidates or Cy Young award nominees and has the fourth lowest payroll in baseball was never expected to do much.
Yes, they have solid up-and-coming prospects like pitcher Jameson Taillon and catcher Tony Sanchez. They are full of potential with young stars like outfielder Andrew McCutchen, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and second baseman Neil Walker. However, potential is just a word loosely thrown around the league that favors production rather potential production.
This year, however, the Pirates have started to produce a winner. Ninety-five games into the season, the Pirates have a winning record and are currently in first place in the NL Central.
Last season, it took the Pirates until the 147th game to get their 50th win of the season. This year, the Pirates got win 50 in the 94th game of the season.
Last season's leading pitcher in wins was Paul Maholm with nine. This year, Kevin Correia has 11 wins in 20 starts.
Last year's leading closer was Octavio Dotel with 21 saves. This year, Joel Hanrahan already has 28, tied for second in Major League Baseball.
Last year was last year, and the Pirates were a bad team. Former Colorado Rockies coach Clint Hurdle was a key pickup in the offseason. And trades that helped free up the likes of Hanrahan to move to closer have turned the Pirates into something they haven't been in the last 18 seasons: winners.
There is only one question left to be answered. With 67 games left to play, can the Pirates maintain their Cinderella story?
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