In reality, the first half of the first season could be broken into two halves: pre May 24 and after. When the season started, there was hope of a .500 season mainly from the idea that the team was pretty average in both pitching and hitting.
Bedard and Burnett were decent veterans, J-Mac and Jeff Karstens would hold fort for Charlie Morton and Kevin Correia would bounce around as needed. Hitting wise, Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones wouldn’t scare anyone, but they were respectable enough to drive in runs set up from a small ball team. What happened next was surprising but not shocking. The offense was god awful. People were talking about how this was the worst lineup in the history of baseball. This was going to be a year that was ruined before it was started. The pitching was just as good as last year before the break and saved more games for the Bucs than anyone could have hoped for.
The Pirates took 2 of 3 from the Phillies before struggling on the west coast (as predicted). Splitting with Atlanta and winning at home vs Colorado made April a 10-12 month that was just around expectations for the toughest schedule in the MLB. The problem was, the hitting was so bad that the outlook wasn’t good. May got off to the wrong foot with series losses to St. Louis and Cincinnati that left fans feeling even more worried but wins against the Nationals and Astros eased those woes.
Then came what could have been the crushing blow. Ugly splits in Washington and Miami were followed by close losses that led to series defeats against Detroit and New York. The team was four games under .500 and it really looked as if this team had no offense and a rotation anchored by two guys. When Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens both hit the DL, the situation looked bleak as the Bucs’ starting pitching suddenly looked vulnerable.
But something clicked. Was it Andrew McCutchen’s dominant bat? Was it A.J. Burnett adoption of team leader? Was it the constant shifting of players and positions by Clint Hurdle? Was it 19 years of bad karma finally disappearing? I don’t know. But that mark of 20-24 would be the lowest under .500 the Bucs would be for the rest of the half.
Two series wins against division leading Cincy sandwiched a slump busting victory in Milwaukee. A sweep of Kansas City made the sweep in Baltimore easier to stomach and El Torro (Pedro Alvarez) ensured that Pittsburgh took a series from Cleveland before coming home to beat the Twins and Tigers. A split in Philly led to a win in St. Louis led to a four game sweep of Houston (the first since ’79) and a victory of San Fran punctuated with a 13-2 shellacking.
The last paragraph right there? The one that included the Pirates’ bats hitting for an absurd 5.5 runs per game? That included the evolution and maturation of J-Mac into an ace? The one that included an MVP performance by Cutch and so many key moments from role players pushed the Pirates to 48-37.
Yes, 48-37. Good for a .565 winning percentage, lead in the NL Central, and best mark since 1991. This is a team on the upswing who’s GM just said on the radio that “we haven’t played our best baseball yet.” The Bucs still need more power in the lineup and still need one more pitcher to solidify the rotation. But this is a team that erased a horrible start to move to first.
Here’s to hoping the second half starts where the second first half left off.