Home Pittsburgh Sports College Football The Warning Track: Bucs look toward stretch run

The Warning Track: Bucs look toward stretch run

Baseball fans around America have turned their attention to the three-team race for the National League Central and made a surprising discovery: The Pittsburgh Pirates are thick in the race for the best record in baseball.

The Pirates have had their ups and downs this year. After a 1-5 start, the team battled back to .500 early with a crucial sweep of the Reds. The Pirates put together a nine-game win streak at the end of June, which included back-to-back-to-back sweeps of the Angels, Mariners and Brewers, and reached 21 games over .500, where they hovered throughout July.

At the All-Star break, the Pirates were 19 games over, their best mark at the break since 1975. Five players made the National League’s All-Star squad, the team’s largest representation since 1972.

In many respects, the Pirates are sailing in uncharted territory – yet there is a “we’ve seen this before” feeling among an uneasy fan base, concerned that the team will collapse down the stretch for a third consecutive season.

Indeed, history seems to be against the Pirates; they were 31-46 the second half of last season, and had no more than 27 wins post-break the three years before that. Some of the Pirates key players have been historically poor second-half performers. Andrew McCutchen in particular has seen his batting average, RBI, and homerun totals drop drastically in the second halves of the last two seasons.

Other regulars like All-Star pitcher Jeff Locke and second-year left fielder Starling Marte will face the grind of their first fill regular seasons in the majors for the first time.

Still other players have tended to improve in the second half, like Russell Martin, whose batting average last year went from .179 to .242. Mark Melancon, who will move into the closer’s role with Jason Grilli on the disabled list, has shown second-half improvement in the past as well. Last season, A.J. Burnett’s ERA lowered from the first half to the second half for the first time since 2008, which would make for an interesting situation this year, considering his 2.96 ERA through July is his lowest ever.

As the team moves into the last two months of what could be their most important season in over 20 years, general manager Neal Huntington seems committed to his strategy from prior years.

“We’ve got to be open-minded to anything, whether it’s a bat, whether it’s a starting pitcher, a reliever, bench help,” Huntington said as the trade deadline neared. “We’ve got to look to see how we can best help this club, and sometimes the best moves are no moves.”

To finish well, the Pirates have to beat their own division. They have three series in August and September with their toughest rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, and two each with the Reds and Brewers. Both series with Cincinnati are part of a final 10-day in-division run to finish the regular season.

The remaining games against St. Louis could prove the most important, as the Pirates struggle for a playoff berth. Throughout the first half, it looked like the NL’s two wild-card teams and the best record could all come from the Central Division, a potential first in the MLB.

Despite the good start, both Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle see room for improvement. “I’d say we played a really good first half of baseball. We’re pleased. We’re not satisfied,” said Hurdle. “There’s not a man among us satisfied.”

Huntington looked ahead with more specific goals.

“They don’t celebrate half seasons,” he said. “We want to make sure we position ourselves to celebrate a full season and hopefully some postseason.”

Erika Schneider’s weekly Pirates podcast, “The Warning Track,” can be downloaded every Monday during baseball season at http://www.pittsburghsportsreport.com/PSR/podcast/PSRRadioPirates.

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