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What If…

Second baseman Neil Walker said it best last week when he pointed out the Pirates are no longer sneaking up on anyone. The cat is out of the bag, the Pirates are in a pennant race at the All-Star break. Baseball around Pittsburgh is fun for a change.

As July reaches the midway point, the Pirates are contending for the National League Central Division title for the first time since 1997. And that’s not all: The Pirates enter the All-Star break over .500 for the first time since ’92, the last time they won a division title.

Ninety games into the 2011 season the Pirates (47-43) are third in the N.L. Central, one game back of the co-leading Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. For the sake of comparison, the Pirates were 45-45 at the 90-game mark in 1997, the year they finished second (79-83) in the N.L. Central, five games back of the Houston Astros. They were also 45-45 in 1999 before faltering to 78-83, 18½ games out. Prior to now, the Bucs haven’t come close to .500 since.

What is most amazing about these Pirates is not the record they have amassed entering the All-Star break, although 47-43 in itself is quite the achievement for a team that many did not expect to finish with 70 wins.

No, what is most amazing is the Pirates have done all this while having swept only one series of three games or better. The Bucs swept Houston in a three-game set at Minute Maid Park June 14-16.

And it’s not as if they haven’t had their chances.

The Pirates have taken 18 series already this season, two more than the 16 they captured the entire 2010 season. That figure includes three of four at Cincinnati in April, the sweep of a two-game miniseries against the Reds in May and the aforementioned three-game sweep at Houston.

Sixteen three-game series have gone 2-1 in the Pirates’ favor this season. In six of those sets the Pirates won the first two games, only to lose the series finale.

Had the Pirates won the finale in three of those series, they would be 10 games over .500 and leading the division by two games

Whether by coincidence, those six potential series sweeps have come since mid-May, after the Pirates snapped a season-long six-game losing streak with the two-game sweep at Cincinnati.

Here is a capsule glance at six series that the Pirates could have just as easily swept, or should have swept. Keep in mind these series might break what currently stands as a season of great promise for the Pirates.

May 20-22, Tigers, won first two, lost finale —  Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello limited the Pirates to one hit through the first eight innings. Left-hander Paul Maholm labored through 5 1/3 innings and left with his team trailing 1-0. Jim Leyland’s Tigers came away from PNC Park with a 2-0 victory.

May 27-29, at Cubs, won first two, lost finale — The longstanding rivals waited out a 2 hour, 34-minute rain delay before they finally launched the Sunday proceedings. Jeff Karstens surrendered a home run to former Pirate Aramis Ramirez in the second inning and yielded to three relievers with the Pirates trailing 3-2. Three Chicago relievers limited the Pirates to one hit over their final three turns at bat and the Cubs’ 3-2 lead stood to the end. Pittsburgh managed only five hits for the day.

June 3-5, Phillies, won first two, lost finale — If only by coincidence, the team’s confidence grew as the crowds became larger. One day after a then-PNC Park record crowd of 39,441 (the record already has since been broken three times), right-hander James McDonald was handed an early 2-0 lead, only to blow up in the fourth and fifth innings and allow Philadelphia to assume a 4-2 lead. The Phillies went on to win, 7-3.

June 7-9, Diamondbacks, won first two, lost finale — Have you noticed a pattern just yet? Jeff Karstens pitched seven scoreless innings but left with the game still scoreless. Chris Resop allowed a two-run homer to Chris Young in the eighth, however, producing the only runs Arizona would need. Four Diamondbacks hurlers checked the Pirates on five hits. Thought we’d pass that stat along to those who keep wondering why the Pirates remain in the lower third in N.L. team batting.

June 24-26, Red Sox, won first two, lost finale — A throng of 39,511, the second PNC Park record crowd in as many days (it included a large number of Red Sox rooters), took in the Sunday finale. Left fielder Jose Tabata injured his left quadriceps and landed on the disabled list while trying to leg out a slow roller. Each team scored only one earned run, and Boston held the Pirates to five hits en route to salvaging the series finale, 4-2.  News flash: When the Pirates don’t hit, they’re not as likely to win.

July 4-6, Astros, won first two, lost finale — Recapturing their not-so-endearing “Lastros” sobriquet, Houston lost the first two games, 5-3 and 5-1. Right-hander Charlie Morton pitched five strong innings in the getaway game, but imploded as a throwing error by rookie shortstop Chase d’Arnaud precipitated a five-run rally that allowed the Astros to seize control. Houston won, 8-2.

Lack of run support also prevented the Pirates from winning three-games series against the St. Louis Cardinals (April 4-6), Astros (May 5-7) and Toronto Blue Jays (June 28-30). The same offensive deficiency also forced the Pirates to settle for a four-game series split July 1-3 at Washington as they lost 2-1 and 4-3 decisions to the Nationals.

The Pirates also blew a 5-3 lead in the middle game of a May 2-4 series at San Diego and lost 6-5 to the Padres. A 6-3 loss Saturday in the middle game of a three-game series against the Cubs prevented the Pirates from scoring yet another three-game series.

Here’s what is fun about this, however. When you can play the “What-if” game and debate how much farther ahead the Pirates might or should be, it means the expectations have increased.

The Pirates have earned those increased expectations over the first 90 games.

Now comes the hard part: Meeting those greater expectations, especially now that they are no longer baseball’s best-kept secret.

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