Bullpen improvements one key for Pirates

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Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates are hoping to reach the postseason for the first time since 1992.

The Pirates entered play Thursday 11 games above .500 and tied with the Reds atop the National League’s central division. At 51-40, they were tied with the Giants and Cincinnati for the second-best record in the NL and tied for fourth in all of Major League Baseball.

Pirates Since June 1

They have been one of baseball’s hottest teams over the last two months, posting an NL-best .634 win percentage since June 1 (only the Yankees at .732 have been better). Following wins against the Rockies on Tuesday and Wednesday, all is well in Pittsburgh. That is, unless you flash back a season ago.

The Pirates were all alone in first place of the central division on Tuesday, July 19, 2011, and were hoping to finish off a sweep of the Reds the following day. Pittsburgh had won three straight and five of its past six games and were sitting a season-best seven games above .500.

Unfortunately for the Pirates, that would be the high-water mark for a 2011 season that unraveled and unraveled quickly. Beginning on July 20, the Pirates lost 15 of their next 18 games and would eventually finish 24-games back of division-winning Milwaukee. Their .313 win percentage (21-46) after July 19 was the worst in the National League.

But what’s different this time around?

Andrew McCutchen leads the majors in batting average (.369), slugging (.649), and OPS (1.072) and the MVP candidate has been the catalyst for the Pirates during their summer surge.

Since June 1, he has a league-high 66 hits, is hitting a league-best .410, and is tied for the league lead with 40 runs batted in. Last season, McCutchen was hitting .280 on July 19 with 14 home runs. He has 14 home runs since June 1 of this season.

Joel Hanrahan

HanrahanThe Pittsburgh bullpen is also much improved. The Pirates are 43-0 this season when leading after seven innings (five such losses by this time last season) and Joel Hanrahan is second in the NL with 26 saves. As a team, they have seen improvement in bullpen ERA (2.64 vs 3.06), opponent batting average (.220 vs .245) and WHIP (1.23 vs 1.30) compared to this point last season.

Finally, their remaining schedule is more manageable this time around. Pittsburgh opponents have a combined win percentage of .466 the rest of the way in 2012. Their opponents’ combined win percentage after July 19 was .512 last year.

Only time will tell whether the Pirates can hang on and make their first playoff appearance since 1992. But for now, some encouraging pieces seem to be falling into place.