Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug (Opening image credit: Pittsburgh Sports Report)
The Pittsburgh Pirates have had one heckuva run over the past 13 games (10-3). At least for the time being, they’re overcoming 3 of the biggest obstacles that have chained them in the NL Central basement over the past few seasons.
1. Beating NL Central division leaders
Normally, this is the St. Louis Cardinals, a team against which the Pirates have fared poorly over the past few seasons. This year, the Cincinnati Reds surged to the division lead early, and haven’t relinquished it. However, after last night’s Pirates’ win against the Kansas City Royals- coupled with a Reds’ loss- Cincinnati’s lead over the Pirates has shrunk to 1 game.
The Pirates are not simply the beneficiaries of serendipity here, having taken the past two serieses against their Ohio rival, 2 games to 1 each, the latter rubber game decided by an exciting 5-4 Pirates’ win in extra innings on June 7th.
2. Beating the Milwaukee Brewers- in Milwaukee!
Image credit boston.com
Since 2007, the Pirates have gone an unbelievable 4-38 playing in the warehouse known as Miller Park. During their first visit this year (June 1st-3rd), Pittsburgh risked losing all of the momentum they garnered in their previous series win against the Reds. Lucking out by drawing neither SP Yovanni Gallardo or Zach Greinke, the Pirates took 2 of 3 from the injured-but-still-formidable Beermakers.
3. Hanging Tough against Interleague Opponents
Since MLB interleague play began in 1997, the Pirates have had by far the worst record against opposite league opponents in all of baseball. This year? To date, they’re holding their own. They lost a late-May series to the disappointing Detroit Tigers 2 games to 1, yet as of this morning, have taken the opening 2 games of their 3-game set with the Royals, to draw their early 2012 interleague record to 3-3.
Overall success or failure against the 2012 AL slate is still difficult to predict, as the Pirates play the next 13 in a row against American League clubs, a scheduling surprise during a time period in which MLB has tended to spread out interleague play through a much larger portion of the year. After concluding their series with the Royals today, the Pirates travel to Camden Yards to face the equally surprising Baltimore Orioles, followed by another trip across statelines to square off against the Cleveland Indians. (Both of these serieses always draw interest from fans all 3 franchises, due not only to geographic proximity, but also from the cities’ rivalries in the NFL, and the Pirates’ and Orioles’ World Series history.) Finally, the Pirates return home for 3 against the downtrodden Minnesota Twins, capped off with another 3-game Detroit Tigers encore.
4. Beware of the Trends…
Both the Pirates and Cleveland Indians are in 2nd place in the NL Central and AL Central respectively, with identical 31-27 records. And yet their run differentials- usually a very quality indicator of future success- are -18 (PIT) and -19 (CLE). Cleveland may be able to maintain their standing, as the 3 teams beneath them in the Central have run differentials as bad or far worse:
Kansas City -29
Here they come; Image credit vivaelbirdos
But in the NL Central, the Pirates have the nasty +58 of the St. Louis Cardinals lurking only 1 game behind them. That +58- meaning the Cardinals have scored 58 more runs than their opponents this season- is the 2nd-best in baseball, behind only the AL West-leading Texas Rangers (+66).
So what does this mean? Barring injury, it’s highly likely that the current-3rd place Cardinals will exit September atop the NL Central. The Reds are already a solid bet to finish 2nd, while the Pirates- barring any significant trades- could finish anywhere from 3rd to 5th, as the underachieving Brewers aren’t far behind, and the Houston Astros are still within striking distance during their National League 2012 curtain call, prior to departing for the American League in 2013.
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