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Andrew McCutchen's Blistering Turnaround Has Pirates Rolling Back to Contention

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterMay 29, 2015

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The Pittsburgh Pirates beat the San Diego Padres 11-5 on Thursday to win their seventh in a row, the longest streak in Major League Baseball at the moment and one that formerly slumping superstar Andrew McCutchen has been behind.

A 3-for-5 performance with two runs and two RBI marked McCutchen's third three-hit outing in his last eight games, bringing his season line up to .272/.364/.473 with seven home runs, 27 runs and 29 RBI.

And yet not long ago at all, folks couldn't stop wondering: What's wrong with Andrew McCutchen?

Bothered by a balky left knee that had lingered since early in spring training, the 2013 NL MVP was scuffling so badly through the first month-plus that his batting average was below .200.

In fact, that was the case as recently as May 7, barely three weeks ago. Since that fateful day, however, McCutchen has turned his season around—and so have the Pirates. Coincidence? Unlikely.

Over that 20-game stretch, the star center fielder has hit .384/.471/.712 with five of his seven homers and nine of his 11 doubles.

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 23:  Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrates with teammate Josh Harrison #5 after hitting a two-run home run in the first inning against the New York Mets during the game at PNC Park on May 23, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pe
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It shouldn't be at all surprising, then, to find out that in that same span the Pirates have gone 13-7, giving them more wins in that span than any club beside the Washington Nationals (14) and San Francisco Giants (15).

Pittsburgh has gone from three games under .500 to three over, and although the Pirates still trail the NL Central-leading St. Louis Cardinals by six games, the Pirates are only 1.5 out of a playoff berth.

That goes in the books as a much-needed and well-timed hot stretch for the Pirates, who are coming off two consecutive postseason appearances and hope to continue that run this year despite being in the ultra-competitive NL Central with the consistent Cardinals and upstart Chicago Cubs.

"It’s the confidence we have right now," catcher Chris Stewart said after Wednesdays' win, per Josh Yohe of DKonPittsburghSports.com. "We’ve got our swag back. We’re as good as any team in baseball, especially when we’re playing like this."

As much credit as McCutchen is due, he's not doing all of this by himself.

The rest of the offense has picked it up around him, including the surprising Francisco Cervelli (1.040 OPS since May 6), the returned-to-relevance Josh Harrison (.979), the very underrated Starling Marte (.897), and the breaking-out Jung Ho Kang (.853), the latter two of which homered in Thursday's victory.

Over the past 14 days, the Pirates offense ranks in the top five in each of batting average (.288), on-base percentage (.343) and slugging (.453). After scoring just 4.0 runs per game in April, Pittsburgh is up almost half a run to 4.4 per. 

But McCutchen and the offense haven't been the only impressive aspect of the Pirates of late.

The pitching staff, led by ace-in-the-making Gerrit Cole, the dominant-when-on Francisco Liriano and the back-from-the-dead (again) A.J. Burnett, sported a 3.01 ERA across the past two weeks entering Thursday's game.

Burnett wasn't especially sharp but did get his fifth straight win and kept his season ERA below 2.00 on Thursday, which was the first of 10 games in a row Pittsburgh will play on the road in San Diego, San Francisco and Atlanta.

The Pirates' recent run has put them back in the playoff picture just at a time when they could have sunk further into a funk that would have been disappointing—and could have been disastrous.

If McCutchen and Pittsburgh can continue to play well through this road trip, they will be in line to benefit big time when they get back to PNC Park and face the woeful Milwaukee Brewers, the rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies and the underwhelming Chicago White Sox for eight games.

Now that McCutchen is playing like his usual self and the Pirates are streaking, both parties' sluggish starts feel like they happened in another month or even another year.

But it wasn't nearly that long ago—it was only a few short weeks in the past. Emphasis on the last three words.

Statistics are accurate as of Thursday, May 28, and courtesy of MLB.comBaseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.