Pirates Face Uphill Battle in NL Central

The sports landscape right now is a weird mix of news. On the positive side, we have Derek Jeter getting 3,000 hits, the ultra-dramatic women's World Cup, the rejuvenation of a post-Tiger PGA, and the looming end of the NFL lockout (to be followed by the most insanely compact and interesting free agency period in the history of modern sports).

On the downside, we get to relive the steroid era thanks to the Roger Clemens trial/mistrial/eventual re-trial, an NBA lockout that threatens to make the NFL lockout look like a company picnic, and ESPN's cowardly silencing of Bruce Feldman for — gasp — daring to work on a book that just might make one if its college football talking heads look like a meddling jerk dad who unethically pulled strings to get his underachieving son's football coach fired. (#freebruce)

But there is one developing sports story that you just can't miss and, if things stay on their current path, it threatens to knock everything else off radar:

The Pittsburgh Pirates are relevant.

The Pittsburgh freaking Pirates!

Just in case you're not up to date on your perennial NL Central doormats, here's some context on just how long it's been since the Pirates mattered during late summer: the last time the Pirates made the playoffs, the NL Central didn't even exist. It was 1992, and we were still a season away from realignment and two seasons away from the strike that cancelled the 1994 World Series. We were all gleefully unaware of the burgeoning steroids scandal, and Miley Cyrus wasn't even born yet.

Not only has the franchise not made the playoffs since 1992, they haven't even finished .500 since then. That's 18 straight losing seasons with a combined total record of 1,223-1,623 (a .430 winning percentage), bottoming out last year at 57-105, their worst record since 1952.

To really appreciate the magnitude of what could be developing on the Alleghany, consider this quote from Pirates all-star closer Joel Hanrahan (from Albert Chen's "Inside Baseball" column on CNNSI.com): "People were showing up to the ballpark, and they weren't wearing Steelers gear, or Penguins gear, or paper bags over their heads. ... They were actually wearing Pirates gear. It was kind of strange."

You know things haven't gone well when it's strange to see fans wearing the home team's gear in their home ballpark.

Now the Pirates are in a tie for second place in the NL Central, just a half game back of Milwaukee. They're drawing bigger crowds who are wearing the right gear. The TV ratings are up, and fans from St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee actually have to start paying attention to what the Pirates score is every day.

The Pirates have been winning thanks to a pitching staff that has the fifth-best team ERA in the NL. Starters Jeff Karstens and Paul Maholm are pretty far down the list of guys you'd take in a fantasy draft, and they don't strike guys out (combined 138 in 234.1 innings pitched), but Karstens is top five in baseball in ERA (2.34) and top 10 in WHIP (1.03). Maholm isn't too far behind at 3.06 and 1.21. Compare that to the best two guys on the other three contenders:

Pittsburgh: Karstens (2.34 ERA / 1.03 WHIP) and Maholm (3.06 / 1.21)

St. Louis: Jaime Garcia (3.11 / 1.23) and Chris Carpenter (3.69 / 1.32)

Cincinnati: Johnny Cueto (2.01 / 1.00) and Mike Leake (4.28 / 1.20)

Milwaukee: Shaun Marcum (3.39 / 1.14) and Randy Wolf (3.65 / 1.34)

Adding to the effectiveness of Pittsburgh's starting pitching has been the best closer in the league in Joel Hanrahan, who has converted on 26 of his 27 save chances and carries a Mariano Rivera-esque 1.30 ERA and 0.91 WHIP.

Unfortunately, Pittsburgh's pitching has had to be that good because their offense has been mediocre at best. Pittsburgh is hitting just .247 as a team and averaging just 3.97 runs per game. Andrew McCutchen is a legitimate star in the making, and Neil Walker is an underrated run producer as a second-baseman, but the lineup is still several pieces short of being able to contend with the big bats of St. Louis (Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman), Cincinnati (Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce), and Milwaukee (Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks).

Adding to the Pirates' degree of difficulty is that they have the toughest schedule of the four contenders on the way to October, with a .490 aggregated strength of schedule (St. Louis' is .485, Cincinnati's .482, and Milwaukee's .479).

Pittsburgh will take the Reds and Cardinals next up at home before heading to Atlanta for four and Philadelphia for three. If they finish up that Phillies series within reach of the Central lead, they should be able to hang in the thick of it through the stretch run. But with virtually no pennant race experience, they will have to rely heavily on manager Clint Hurdle's leadership to navigate some choppy waters.

Can they do it? Sure. The Cards and Reds have terrible bullpens, and the Brewers have half a starting rotation. But with an anemic offense and tough stretch run, the Pirates' journey to the playoffs will not be an easy one.

The journey to respectability, though, is one they are well on their way to finally achieving.

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