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Senior Baseball Columnist

Weekend Buzz: Pirates have plenty to do for us to believe they won't get shipwrecked


Andrew McCutchen (center) has single-handedly carried the Pirates at the plate. (US Presswire)  
Andrew McCutchen (center) has single-handedly carried the Pirates at the plate. (US Presswire)  

The Weekend Buzz while you were celebrating summer by chasing the ice cream man down the street. ...

1. A Pirate looks at Cincy: And now ... a sprint to the finish in the NL Central between Dusty Baker's Reds and ... a Pirates club that hasn't won since Barry Bonds was speeding down the basepaths?

First, it would be disingenuous to count out the third-place Cardinals, especially with Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and Adam Wainwright awaiting Lance Berkman's re-entry.

Second ... do you trust these Pirates?

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They were in first place in late July last summer before sinking like a peg leg. They've been submerged under .500 for so long that, yes, it would be wise to keep the caution light on until they first produce a winning season. The playoffs will come sometime after that.

Yet, Pittsburgh hasn't had pitching like its getting now from starters A.J. Burnett and James McDonald in a long time. Burnett won his seventh consecutive start on Friday, the longest such streak in Pittsburgh since Dock Ellis won eight in a row back in 1974. From May 25 through Sunday, the Pirates posted the best record in the NL at 18-8. Only the Yankees (19-7) were better in the AL.

How long that lasts will be intriguing, because the Pirates rank 15th in the NL in batting average, runs scored and slugging percentage, and 16th in on-base percentage. Pittsburgh's lineup is Andrew McCutchen and the Seven Dwarfs.

If you're a Pittsburgh optimist, you figure Jose Tabata can only get better, Pedro Alvarez will continue to improve and McCutchen eventually will get some help (maybe in a July deadline deal, someone who becomes the opposite of Ryan Ludwick). If you're a Pirates pessimist, you figure the offense will be the anchor that drags them down because the pitching will only get worse.

McCutchen alone had accounted for roughly 34 percent of Pittsburgh's offense (39 runs scored, 45 knocked in) through Sunday. He's having an MVP-type season ... just like Cincinnati's Joey Votto. The only thing more impressive than McCutchen's May numbers (.360, eight homers, 18 RBI) is what he's doing in June (.377, five, 20).

Votto, who homered again in Sunday's loss to the Twins, is hitting .458 with 13 doubles, seven homers and 19 RBI since May 25. Teammate Johnny Cueto, meanwhile, is 4-0 with a 1.47 ERA in June, and Brandon Phillips continues to mine gold at second base with what seems like at least one dazzling defensive play a day.

Despite Sunday's loss, the Reds, who won the division two years ago, remain atop the NL Central. Pittsburgh is just one game back.

Do you trust these Pirates?

Those who have been disappointed the most and should know best are beginning to: The Pirates attracted their sixth sellout crowd of the season Saturday. They've won eight of their past 10 home games, and 12 of 15, and it's easy to see why: Pirates pitchers are especially stingy at PNC Park with a best-in-the-majors 2.28 home ERA.

We'll know soon enough whether the Pirates will stand the test of time in 2012. For now, the energy is back in Pittsburgh ... and they're feeling it in Cincinnati, too.

2. Young man, change your socks: Kevin Youkilis isn't going to be the sole answer for Chicago pulling an end-around and winning the AL Central. But even if he's not the Youk of old, consider him an upgrade for Robin Ventura: White Sox third baseman this season are hitting a combined .167 which, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, makes third base at U.S. Cellular Field the worst offensive position in the majors. The Youkilis of old? No. An upgrade over Brent Morel and Orlando Hudson? Gosh, yes.

3. Ray "The Streak" Stevens player of the week (boogity, boogity): Tigers ace Justin Verlander on Sunday in Pittsburgh worked at least six innings for a 58th consecutive start. Since baseball lowered the mound following the Year of the Pitcher in 1968, only Steve Carlton (69) and Catfish Hunter (61) have produced longer streaks of pitching at least six. And each is in Cooperstown.

4. Chick-fil-A player of the week: Mets closer Frank Francisco called the Yankees "chickens" before facing them, then blew them down in the ninth inning on Friday to collect a save. In true New York fashion, the New York Post blew out a photo of a chicken with Derek Jeter's head pasted atop the body. "I've been treated worse," Jeter said. Last laugh, though, went to the Yankees when Francisco suffered a strained left oblique and was placed on the DL before Sunday night's series finale. From chicken to chicken fat, bawk, bawk.

5. Miami Vice: A moment for the Marlins. (This is your cue to hold your nose while we give the Marlins their moment). After a major-league best 21-8 record in May, they've swung to the other extreme in June: Their batting average (.218), runs scored (56), runs allowed (131) and record (4-16) all ranked last in the majors through Sunday's win over Toronto. Ozzie Guillen says his club should be "embarrassed" and added, "Did you see those two ladies sleeping upstairs? That's the freaking way I feel. I don't blame them a bit for sleeping." Meanwhile, in the other dugout, Blue Jays skipper John Farrell was managing, instead of looking at sleeping ladies, as Toronto scored six in the ninth to send reeling Miami to its 15th loss in 17 games.

6. Matt Cain can't cut it as Barber: Because Santiago Casilla is no Brian Wilson or Robb Nen, Matt Cain is no Sal "The Barber" Maglie. Cain was on deck Sunday to become the team's first pitcher to win nine consecutive starts since Maglie from April 16-May 27, 1952, as STATS_LLC reminded, back when the Giants were in New York. But Casilla gave up his 2-1 ninth-inning lead.

7. Jim Thome is Charlie Manuel's homey: Thome's game-winning homer for the Phillies on Saturday not only was the 609th of his career, tying him with Sammy (No Ingles) Sosa for seventh on baseball's all-time list, but it also was the 13th "walk-off" homer of Thome's career, setting a new major-league record. After all that, you would think someone with the Phillies could get Cliff Lee a win, right?

8. Next time it'll be without the whipped cream: Roy Oswalt arrived Friday with Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando on the disabled list, and do the wily Rangers ever know how to throw a heck of a housewarming party. They lined up the Rockies for Oswalt (of course), and after he plowed through them, he's now 9-2 lifetime against Colorado with a 1.89 ERA. Of the 16 clubs he's faced more than three times, those are easily his best numbers.

9. Jair of the dog (days): Just in time, having lost Brandon Beachy, the Braves welcomed Jair Jurrjens back into their rotation. He rewarded them with far more than anyone could have expected Friday, holding Boston to one run and three hits in 7 2/3 innings. It's a little late to make his second consecutive All-Star team, but if Jurrjens can repeat that several more times, Atlanta's life will become much easier.

10. Max Scherzer's courage: If there was any justice in the game, Scherzer would have beaten the Pirates on Saturday (nothing personal, Pittsburghers). As it was, he lost 4-1, with the word "lost" a wholly relative word. Scherzer was starting just two days after his brother committed suicide. I cannot imagine a sadder story. All prayers and good thoughts to Scherzer from here on out.


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