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Power Rankings: Pirates are surprising, but can they really keep this up?

by | Baseball Blogger

If it weren't for Jerry Meals' awful, terrible, indefensible call, would we be so surprised at the fact that the Pirates entered Wednesday just one game back of the first-place Reds in the National League Central?

Although the Pirates are an interesting story for a couple of days here as they challenge the Reds atop the National League Central standings, it's easy to forget Pittsburgh led the division last season as late as July 25. Which is to say, as great as it is right now that the Pirates are contending, it's not time to start clearing your calendar for October baseball on the banks of the Alleghany, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers.

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A year ago, the Pirates were only 1 1/2 games back at the All-Star break and then were in first place going into the last Tuesday of July. A mere 19 innings and one bad call later, the Pirates lost to the Braves 4-3 in 19 innings. Pittsburgh lost another extra-inning game at Turner Field before salvaging the series on Kevin Correia's 12th win of the season. The All-Star wouldn't win another game in 2011 and the Pirates would lose their next 10 and go 19-42 after Meals called Julio Lugo safe at home, despite the fact he was clearly tagged out by catcher Michael McKenry several feet in front of home plate.

So, is the 2012 version of the Pirates different than the one that extended the team's streak of losing seasons to 19? Perhaps.

The biggest difference is at the top of the rotation. Gone are Paul Majolm and Jeff Karstens, replaced by A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard. There's also the maturation of 27-year-old James McDonald, who is 5-2 with a 2.39 ERA.

There's also the bullpen, which has limited opposing batters to a .220 average while putting up a 2.54 ERA, the best mark in baseball.

While only the Nationals have surrendered fewer than the Pirates' 216 runs, the Pirates are the only team to score fewer than 200 runs. But there are signs the offense is coming around. Only 10 games into June, Pittsburgh's already scored more runs this month (60) than it did in all of April (58), and unlike either of the first two months of the season, the Pirates are scoring more runs than they've allowed, putting up a 7-3 record.

Andrew McCutchen has been performing at an MVP level all season, 26-year-old outfielder Alex Presley is bouncing back from a horrible May, while Garrett Jones and Neil Walker are showing signs of being able to contribute on a regular basis.

There are certainly positives while looking at this team and it's unlikely they'll play anywhere near as badly as they did over the last two months of the 2011 season, the margin for error is so small that it would be a surprise if the Pirates were still in first place this July 25.


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