It looks to be a long time before the Pittsburgh Pirates will be a serious contender for the National League Central Division title. But already they have made a difference in the division race.
Three teams sit atop the division with so-far identical 20-14 records. One of them, the Milwaukee Brewers, has done very well against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Another, the Cincinnati Reds, has done moderately well. And the St. Louis Cardinals have done least well.
The Brewers are 5-0 against the Pirates so far in the season series. The Cincinnati Reds are 3-2. The Cardinals are 4-4, not bad, but not a good showing by a division leader against a cellar dweller.
Here's the point: Without their games against the Pirates, the Cardinals would be 16-10. The Reds would be at 17-12. The Brewers would be only 15-14, barely above .500. Cardinals over Brewers, hands down. Cardinals half a game above the Reds. Not so, however, with the Pirates' tally included.
The Brewers have won 19 of their last 20 games against the Pirates. St. Louis is 11-14 in the same time period (since the beginning of 2008).
"Differential performance" by the Pirates against division rivals (solid to strong vs. the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals, glaringly weak against the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers), basically determined division standings last year. (The Cincinnati Reds weren't a factor then.)
Here are the ingredients for the last two victories: Pirate pitching was strong, as usual. But the Pirates are finally fielding something approaching a full lineup. Jack Wilson returned in good style, and Brandon Moss has suddenly decided to hit. All that's really needed now is a better showing from the two La Roche brothers.
No, the Pirates aren't yet good enough to win the division. But if it's any consolation to fans, they are good enough to be "spoilers."