Pirates, Indians Are Best Stories of 2011

When fans usually think of Pittsburgh and Cleveland, they instantly think of the heated NFL rivalry between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers.

One would never imagine the Rust Belt turnpike football rival towns and their baseball teams to be the surprises in MLB after the All-Star Break, let alone both of their teams in first place.

For the Cleveland Indians, many baseball insiders picked the Tribe to finish no lower than fourth in the AL Central, a division that has three top-heavy playoff veteran clubs in the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, and Minnesota Twins.

Cleveland, which just came off a 69-93 fourth-place finish under then-new manager Manny Acta in the AL Central in 2010, were led in all hitting categories by right-fielder Shin-Soo Choo. Choo would lead the Indians with a .300 batting average, HRs with 22, RBIs with 90, and hits with 165. Choo would also lead Cleveland with a on-base percentage of .401.

Cleveland's pitching was, for the lack of a better word, awful in 2010, as they would finish with the seventh-worst ERA in baseball with 4.30.

Guess which team had the worst ERA in 2010? Pittsburgh at 5.00.

The ace of the 2010 Indians pitching staff was Fausto Carmona, who led Cleveland in wins with 13 and ERA at 3.77. Justin Masterson would lead the Indians in strikeouts with 140 and closer Chris Perez led the Tribe in saves at 23.

Fast forward to 2011 and the Indians sit .1 of a percentage point ahead of the Detroit Tigers in a virtual tie at 49-44 in first place.

One of the main reasons for the Indians' turnaround in 2011 is their starting pitching, which has seen their team ERA drop from 4.30 to 4.00. Cleveland's ace in 2011 is right-hander Josh Tomlin, who leads the team in wins at 11. Masterson leads the Tribe in both ERA at 2.80 and team strikeouts with 95.

Closer Perez has already saved 22 games for the Tribe and has the second-most behind legendary New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. Perez was named to the 2011 all-star as a result.

On the offensive side of the ball, Cleveland is led by flashy slick-fielding shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who is making fans think he is the second coming of Omar Vizquel. Cabrera leads Cleveland in batting average at .290, HRs with 16, RBIs at 55, and hits with 109. And as a result of making Vizquel-like "web gems" plays on the field — an almost nightly appearance on ESPN — Cabrera was named starting shortstop for the 2011 American League all-star team.

For the second half of the season, Cleveland will face nine teams with a combined record of 425-428 and a winning percentage of .498.

Among the teams that Cleveland will face in the season half are division co-leader Detroit, AL-leading Boston at Fenway, defending AL champion Texas in Arlington, and annual nemesis Los Angeles.

Cleveland will also conclude their season with a pivotal three-game series against the Tigers. If the Indians hope to win their first division title since 2007, they will need to pick up another bat — preferably right-handed — to boost their injury-plagued lineup down the stretch.

While the Indians have had a run of recent success, success — or the lack of — in the Steel City has been ongoing for almost two decades. Founded in 1882 and boasting colorful and charismatic names such as Roberto Clemente, Chuck Tanner, and Willie Stargell, today's generation of the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans have not had or seen a winning record since 1992.

For many, the most recent memory of Pirates success was when they lost to the Atlanta Braves in an epic NL Championship Series, highlighted by Sid Bream — a former Pirate — scoring the game-winning, and pennant-clinching run against the Bucs.

At that time, the Bucs had a formidable trio of Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, and Bobby Bonilla. After that fateful game, the Bucs and their fortunes would — pardon the pun — sink.

The Pirates under then-owner Kevin McClatchy were rumored to be moving to Sacramento, but Pittsburgh voters narrowly passed a new stadium initiative, Plan "B," enabling the construction of PNC Park.

The Bucs would go on to field and develop many future all-stars, such as Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez, and Aramis Ramirez. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, those players would be developed for other teams.

The most recent ex-Pirate who has found success elsewhere is home run leader Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays, who played for the Pirates from 2004-2008.

In 2010, the Bucs would finish in last place in the NL Central with a record of 57-105, which would set a new record for futility in sports by having the most consecutive losing seasons ever at 18.

The lone bright spot — if there was any — for the Pirates was center-fielder Andrew McCutchen, who led the Pirates in batting average at .286, hits at 163, and an on-base percentage of .365.

As stated above, Pittsburgh had the worst ERA in 2010 at 5.00, but the one bright spot on the pitching staff was left-hander Paul Maholm, who led the Pirates with 9 wins, an ERA of 5.10, and strikeouts with 102.

Fast-forward to 2011 and Pittsburgh is above .500 in mid-July for the first time since 1997, largely in part to the breakout year of Andrew McCutchen. He's batting .279 with 14 HRs, 57 RBIs, and 54 runs. For those accomplishments, McCutchen was chosen to his first-ever All-Star Game in Phoenix.

Another reason for the revival of Pittsburgh is pitching, as demonstrated by starting pitchers Jeff Karstens, who is currently second in the NL with a ERA of 2.34 and Kevin Correia, who is fourth in the NL in wins at 11. Pittsburgh relief pitching has also been key, as Bucs closer Joel Hanrahan is third in the NL in saves at 26. Pittsburgh's ERA is the main reason why the Bucs have really turned the corner, as it has dropped from a ML-worst 5.00 to an impressive 3.42, eighth-best in the majors.

Much like their AL counterparts in Cleveland, Pittsburgh has a formidable road in the second half; the Bucs face a dozen teams with a combined winning percentage of .473. While not as daunting on paper, the Bucs must face NL contenders Atlanta, cross-state rival Philadelphia, and defending World Series champion San Francisco on the road. Pittsburgh also has to face NL wild card contenders Florida and Arizona, along with NL Central rivals Milwaukee, and the always-potent St. Louis Cardinals down the stretch.

The surprising success of small-markets such as Cleveland and Pittsburgh further demonstrates the new-found parity in baseball, considering that both teams have a combined payroll of $94.2 million, $2.2 million more than that of the entire payroll of the World Series runner-up Texas Rangers, who currently have a payroll of $92.2 million.

With the second half of baseball officially in gear, both Cleveland and Pittsburgh have given their football-starved fans something to hold their attention until Browns and Steelers training camps resume.

Comments and Conversation

July 19, 2011

Josh:

The Indians need a RIGHT handed slugger in the outfield by the way. Not a Left handed batter as you have stated. A decent starter wouldn’t hurt either.

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