Interleague play gives baseball fans the opportunity to see some intriguing matchups that don’t happen often.
For example, the upcoming slate of series this mid-week include the Yankees traveling to Atlanta in a re-match of the 1996 World Series, Cleveland and Cincinnati in the Battle of Ohio, Josh Beckett and the Red Sox facing his former Marlins, and the Battle of Los Angeles.
However, the most intriguing series of this week will take place in the state of Maryland.
Yes, I’m talking Pirates and Orioles.
As in, the first place Pirates against the (nearly) first place Orioles.
Andrew McCutchen and Adam Jones have blossomed into stars for two of 2012's most unlikely contenders.
Pitching Reclamations Projects Power Pirates Into 1st
The Pirates have “Raised the Jolly Roger” 12 times in their last 15 games, good for the best record in the MLB since late May. In the process, they have vaulted from fourth in the NL Central into a first place tie with the Cincinnati Reds.
This is all being done despite the offense being either last or second to last in batting average, runs, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. The Pirates’ regular lineup features just three players with an OPS above .700.
That’s anemic, but they do have one of the top five outfielders in the game in Andrew McCutchen.
When people look at the Pirates, the skeptics will point out that they did this last season: hung around for three months and then faded fast. However, McCutchen wasn’t having an all-world season, and their pitching staff did not include the re-births we have seen from Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett (man, did the league change help them or what?).
Oh, and last year’s Cardinals and Brewers do not exist this season either, as the Pirates do hold first place with a record of just 32-27.
Orioles Maintain Momentum of Hot Start Into June
On the other hand, the Orioles have been consistent all year long, and currently sit one game behind the Tampa Bay Rays and half a game behind the New York Yankees for the best record not only in their division, but in the entire American League.
For the past decade, the Orioles have been a team that sometimes plays well in April and then wakes up and realizes that, well, they are the Orioles. However, in 2012, they had a great April and have just kept on rolling to a 34-26 record, their best through 60 games since 2005.
Unlike Pittsburgh, this has been done based off of their offense.
The O’s are third in all of baseball in home runs (82) and feature a young core of hitters (headlined by MVP candidate Adam Jones) who are tearing the cover off the ball. Their starting pitching has not been as consistent as Pittsburgh’s, but it’s been the best they’ve had in a long time and Jim Johnson has been lights-out as a first-time closer.
However, there are concerns with Baltimore as well.
Of course, the biggest one is that their division is the toughest in all of baseball. The Pirates do not have any world beaters in their division, while the Orioles have the Rays, Yankees, and talented teams like Boston and Toronto that are lurking behind. All of that is true, but much like the Pirates with McCutchen, Adam Jones has become a superstar and a presence that everyone fears.
Are the O’s and Pirates Contenders or Pretenders?
Now that all the strengths and concerns have been laid out, can either of these teams really make the postseason?
Baltimore, statistically, has the stronger team, but Pittsburgh may have the better situation. Regardless, in order for either of these teams to keep pace in their division and wild card races, both need to make a few moves.
Pittsburgh, obviously, is going to have to find a way to acquire another bat or two, as what they have now just is not going to cut it. Pitching is probably more important, but it can only take you so far.
For the Orioles, they could use one more solid starting pitcher and someone at the top of their order, as lead-off man has really been their only offensive problem this season.
If these moves are not made, could the O’s and Pirates both stick around all season and make it interesting? Possibly, but I don’t see it as being enough to keep pace with the higher-payroll, higher-talent teams in their division that are bound to wake up.
Right now though, Pirates and Orioles fans alike should not be thinking about that.
Enjoy this week, as both of your teams are in very good positions and have reasons to be optimistic.
Go ahead and revel in this big series in June. After all, who knows how long this will last for the both of you.
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