It’s August 1, and the Pittsburgh Pirates are the best team in baseball. Weird, right? The Buccos haven’t had a winning record since 1992, but at 65-42 not only are they a lock to finish above .500, it would take a monumental collapse to miss the playoffs.
So who are these guys? Here’s everything you need to know:
1. Pittsburgh has the best pitching in baseball, and it’s not even close.
With a club ERA of 3.03, the Pirates are matching the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies pitching staff headlined by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Instead of household names, the Pirates are led by Jeff Locke, Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett. The starting has been strong for the Pirates, but it’s their bullpen that separates them. The Pirates ‘pen owns a flossy 2.78 ERA and All-Star reliever Mark Melancon leads the way with a 0.88 ERA in 52 appearances.
2. Their third baseman, Pedro Alvarez, leads the NL in home runs.
The Senior Circuit can’t match the AL’s best sluggers, but Alvarez is currently the best with 27 jacks. The 26-year-old is improving on a breakout 30-homer campaign in 2012. A classic swing-from-your-heels slugger, nearly a third of Alvarez’s hits have left the yard. His longest shot of the season, a 456-foot blast into the Allegheny River, tied the game 4-4 in the bottom of the 8th. The Pirates went on to win the game 5-4.
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3. They’re hot right now.
Pittsburgh is currently hosting the St. Louis Cardinals, their main competition in the NL Central, in a five-game series. The Pirates have won the first four contests by a combined score of 22-7. The Pirates have claimed the Central lead during the series and now own a 2.5 game lead. The breaks are going Pittsburgh’s way. In the second game of the series they won on a walk-off single that deflected off the Cardinals’ pitcher’s glove and squeaked into the outfield.
4. They have beasts in the minors.
Outfield prospect Andrew Lambo has 28 minor league home runs and is likely to be called up. Vic Black, their 2009 first round pick, has struck out nearly half the batters he has faced this season and is another potential call-up. The Pirates remained quiet during yesterday’s trade deadline, but it makes sense when you have young studs waiting for their chance to contribute.
5. They are built for the long-haul.
Last season’s Cinderella, the Baltimore Orioles, were incredibly lucky, finishing 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in extra inning affairs. Such luck lead to 11 more wins than expected. The Pirates are a modest three games above their expected record. They are a bottom middle-of-the-road team in scoring, but great pitching can take you deep into the playoffs. The only caveat: their 76 errors are fifth worst in baseball. You can get away with that over the course of the regular season, but one untimely postseason error can wipe a team out.
The Buccos have all the characteristics of a team primed for a deep playoff run. After two decades of despair, Pirates fans can rejoice in a bona fide winner. Great pitching and timely hitting are nothing new, but baseball’s oldest formula for success is fresh for a generation of Pittsburgh baseball fans.
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