Here we are! The midpoint of the season is here, the All-Star festivities have commenced and, as usual, the Pirates are 15 games out of first place and 12 games under…wait, what? The Pirates are only 1 game out of first and 4 games over .500?
As surprising as the season has been, it has been equally exciting, entertaining and for the first time in nearly two decades, Pittsburgh fans has a reason to go to Pirates games for more than just fireworks and a concert. The 47-43 record marks the first time the Pirates have had a winning record at the All-Star Break since 1992, their last winning season. The Pirates are also sending 3 All-Stars for the first time since 1990.
Manager Clint Hurdle has been the biggest reason for their turnaround, creating a winning atmosphere by preaching aggressive baseball and blocking players from looking into the putrid past of last year's team. He has benched players such as Ronny Cedeno and Andrew McCutchen for taking plays off. By benching McCutchen, the Pirates franchise player and superstar, Hurdle has shown he will not play favorites and that nobody's job is safe.
The greatest improvement has been in the pitching staff. After having the worst team ERA last year, the Pirates are currently ranked 8th in all of baseball in ERA. Kevin Correia, an All-Star, is the first Pirates pitcher to reach double digit wins since 2009 (Ross Ohlendorf and Zach Duke). Paul Maholm is the only starter with a losing record, however he also is among the bottom of the league in run support. With a 2.69 ERA, Maholm deserves more than a 6-9 record.
Over the first half of the season, the Pirates have been nothing short of theatrical. Lets take a look back on some of the turning points in the season:
April 1st-Opening Day
On a cold, rain soaked day in Wrigley, Neil Walker hit a grand slam and Andrew McCutchen added on with a 2-run homer as the Pirates defeated the Chicago Cubs 6-3 on opening day. The Pirates would go on to win their first road series of the season.
May 18th-21st Stopping the streak
After losing 6 straight games, the Pirates rebounded to win 4 in a row against the Reds and Tigers. The winning streak gave fans their first sign of hope as previous Pirates teams would have tanked after losing 6 straight games. The Pirates finished 13-13 in the month of May.
June 3rd Interstate Showdown
Despite owning the 2nd highest payroll in MLB, the Phillies had their hands full with the Pirates. Jeff Karstens, in what became a breakout game, matched Cole Hamels as both starters went at least 7 innings, surrendering one run a piece. With 2 outs in the 12th inning, Jose Tabata singled off the glove of Chase Utley and Xavier Paul came around to score. The Pirates won 6-3 the following night, taking 2 out of 3 from the Phillies.
June 7th-8th Fight for .500
Down 5-3 in the 8th inning, the Pirates rallied to score 5 runs and defeat Arizona 8-5. Lyle Overbay led the charge with a bases clearing double to give the Pirates the lead. The following night, the Pirates made the push back to .500. After going down 2-1 in the 10th, Neil Walker singled home Andrew McCutchen to keep the team alive. In the bottom of the 12th, Andrew McCutchen led off with a walk off home run to move the Pirates to 30-30.
June 24th-25th Taking Down the Empire
Make no mistake, there is an Evil Empire just as prevalent in Boston as in New York. The Pirates did not care. Maholm pitched 5.1 solid innings and the bullpen did the rest to lock down a 3-1 victory on Friday. On Saturday, Lyle Overbay took a Tim Wakefield knuckleball into the right field seats, putting the Pirates ahead for good. The Pirates failed to sweep the Sox when they committed 4 errors on Sunday's series finale.
July 8th The Fort Comes Through
Down 3-2 in the 8th inning, Josh Harrison singled home Neil Walker to tie the game. Michael McKenry, the mighty mini catcher, smashed an 0-2 breaking ball over the left field wall and ensured the Pirates' first winning record at the All-Star break since 1992.
While the pitching has continued to be successful, the offense has started to come around. Entering Sunday's game against the Cubs, the Pirates had the highest team batting average over the last 10 games. With a tough road trip ahead, the Pirates will need to click on all sides to stay in the race for the NL Central crown. The last week of July includes 4 games against the Braves and 3 against the Phillies. With both series on the road, Hurdle will become a guiding light for this young team. If the Pirates come out of July in contention, they'll have plenty of chances to overtake the NL Central lead. Either way, Pirates fans are FINALLY able to see competitive baseball in the second half of the season.