SweetSpot: Jason Grilli

Bucs, Reds sort stuff out before showdown

September, 22, 2013

You might expect that the easy focus during baseball's penultimate regular-season weekend is on guessing who's going to make it into October. Not so much in the National League, though, where the playoff slate has been essentially settled for weeks. No, in the NL this last week or so is a matter of sorting, to see who winds up winning the NL Central and who winds up having to play in the senior circuit’s play-in game. But if you figure the Cardinals win the division the way everyone expected months ago while the Reds and Pirates beat on each other this weekend and next, what do these games between the Pirates and Reds really mean, beyond temporary bragging rights before winner-take-all in the wild card on October 1?

On Saturday night, beyond one win or one loss, you could argue that what both teams got was intel that’s going to inform both teams’ biggest decision: Who starts that game on October 1? Both teams have a week-plus to make some tough decisions about what they’re going to have to ask their players to do, starting with the starters.
[+] EnlargeJason Grilli
David Maxwell/Getty ImagesGreeting Jason Grilli back to the closer's role could be one of the Pirates' biggest takeaways from Saturday night's win.

Let’s begin with A.J. Burnett’s showing against the Reds as the Pirates’ biggest potential takeaway, because as the best Batman would be quick to remind us, it’s been a while since concepts like “Pirates” and “October action” have been in the same conversation. In his previous pair of spins against the Reds this season, Burnett was anything but dominant, notching a textbook six-inning, three-run quality start in April and a bashing in July where the Reds scored five and put 13 men on base in 5 2/3 innings.

So seeing Burnett throw seven strong innings against a Reds lineup that had Joey Votto in it was very nice. It’s also important to remember Shin-Soo Choo wasn’t playing. Choo hasn’t entirely owned Burnett, but he’s done some damage -- three extra-base hits and three walks in 28 plate appearances -- and he’s the best leadoff hitter in the league. Add in Ryan Ludwick having good at-bats against Burnett now that he’s back in action, and I wouldn’t be so sure to say Burnett is the guy the Pirates must start in sudden-death action. Even allowing for the small sample sizes that are implicit with postseason play, Burnett got clobbered in a pair of Game 5 starts for the Yankees in 2009 (in the ALCS against the Angels, and against the Phillies in the World Series) and took another beating in the 2010 ALCS against the Rangers, a track record which helps explain why he’d get hooked in the sixth against the Tigers in the 2011 LDS while up by three runs. How much faith do you want to put in his Steel City renaissance, in sudden death?

But if not Burnett, who? Rookie Gerrit Cole, perhaps? Maybe Francisco Liriano, because the veteran lefty owns Choo going back to their long association in the AL Central (.412 OPS, with 10 whiffs in 32 PAs), and has done well against Votto as well. Not that Votto gets completely spavined by tough southpaws with an .845 OPS against his .976 OPS versus right-handers, but this year alone he’s losing 70 points of average and OBP and 60 points of slugging against southpaws. Using a total-offense metric like FanGraphs’ weight On-Base Average (wOBA), you can see the Reds’ .317 wOBA rates a decidedly mediocre 14th in the majors to the Pirates’ .310. If you had a chance to mitigate the damage that Votto or Choo might do against your team, to negate even that seemingly slender advantage on offense, wouldn’t you?

The second big takeaway from Saturday night was Jason Grilli getting the save, his first since July 21 and his first since his trip to the DL. Read into it what you will, whether a full loss of faith that top setup man Mark Melancon can nail down ninth-inning leads after his blown save on Wednesday night against the Padres, renewed confidence that Grilli is back, or an exaggerated sense of importance for who gets to wear the one “closer” merit badge in the clubhouse.

We can rail about this sort of thing because of the outsized significance that gets attached to every team’s designated saves-generator. But if Grilli’s getting this save and one or two more before season’s end gives Bucs skipper Clint Hurdle the confidence to put his pen pieces back in the order he had them in until Grilli got hurt, this could be a happy development. It’s also interesting that it might come at the exact moment the Cardinals are coming to the realization that their journeyman-turned-closer, Edward Mujica, might not be the perfect answer. If Grilli can handle the ninth with Melancon, Bryan Morris and lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson in front of him, that sort of pen depth is a big part of the reason why the Pirates are here in the first place.

As for the Reds, if I’m Dusty Baker, I don’t invest this outcome with any particular significance whatsoever. Maybe that suits a lot of preconceived notions people have about Baker’s management style, but after this one loss I wouldn’t rule out starting Homer Bailey in a sudden-death game against the Pirates in a week. Bailey had already notched two quality starts against Pittsburgh earlier in the year, not to mention last year’s no-hitter against them. Mat Latos hasn’t done better than that against the Pirates this season, and turning to Bronson Arroyo hasn’t turned out so well in the past where the postseason is concerned. Tabbing Mike Leake in his breakthrough season would be a gutsy call, probably one that Dusty doesn’t make.

No, exasperating as Bailey can be for his seeming inconsistency, he might perfectly reflect the Reds themselves: capable of dominating at any time against anybody. Maybe sudden-death baseball will bring out the best in him. Maybe it will be Burnett’s big chance to completely close the door on his past rap for bombing with the Bombers in the postseason. Call Saturday night a dress rehearsal for both men, and we’ll see where they’re at in 10 days.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

The wild-card game is, of course, a bit mad. Or maybe completely mad. Telling teams they have to play 162 games to get into the playoffs and then one game to stay alive is akin to telling two NFL teams they've made the playoffs after 16 regular-season games and then get six minutes to determine who moves on to the next round.

That's my new name for the wild-card game: Six minutes of hell.

The one positive aspect of the wild-card game is one of its intended results: Winning your division is, of course, paramount. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon explained it succinctly the other day, telling the Tampa Bay Times, "I want us to win the division, period … and avoid that madness."

Madness. That's kind of what we have going on in the NL Central right now, in which the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are now separated by just 2½ games. The Cardinals and Reds won on Sunday behind dominant pitching performances from Adam Wainwright (11 strikeouts in a 6-1 win over the Cubs) and Homer Bailey (three hits in eight innings against the Brewers), while the Pirates suffered a gut-wrenching 16-inning loss at home to Arizona when rookie Kris Johnson, making his major league debut, finally surrendered two runs in his sixth inning of relief work.

Right now, the Reds are hot, the Pirates are scuffling and the Cardinals are the team everyone bet on at the All-Star break. But it's anybody's race to win, and while all three will likely make the playoffs (the Reds are five games up on the Diamondbacks for the second wild-card slot), only one of the three can win the division. Let's ask some key questions and predict our winner.

Who has the toughest schedule remaining? Here are each team's remaining series against teams currently above .500:

Pirates: STL (3), at STL (3), at TEX (3), CIN (3), at CIN (3)
Cardinals: ATL (4), CIN (3), at PIT (3), at CIN (3), PIT (3)
Reds: ARI (4), at STL (3), STL (3), LAD (3), at PIT (3), PIT (3)

They all have home-and-home series with each other, so no advantage gained there. The Reds have one extra series against a quality opponent, but one big edge they have is 24 of their remaining 38 games are at home and they are 37-20 at home, 33-34 on the road. The Cardinals have a tough slate ahead, beginning Thursday when they have consecutive series against the Braves, Reds, Pirates, Reds and Pirates, but their final 19 games are against current losing teams.

Advantage: Reds and Cardinals. That season-ending stretch should play into the Cards' favor while the Pirates have to finish up at Cincinnati and also have more road games remaining.

Which rotation is hottest? There's no best way to evaluate this, of course, but over the past two weeks, the Reds rotation has the second-best ERA (2.16) in the majors behind the Dodgers. The Pirates are 30th -- worst -- at 6.11. It's only a span of 12 games and includes Francisco Liriano's 10-run blow-up in Colorado but also includes just five quality starts, none by A.J. Burnett or Jeff Locke in five outings between them. Locke was an All-Star, but since the break, he has a 5.58 ERA while allowing more than two baserunners per inning. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has regressed -- as many predicted -- and he's walked 21 in 30⅔ innings.
[+] EnlargeTony Cingrani
AP Photo/Morry GashSlotting Tony Cingrani into the rotation has made the Reds stronger still for the stretch run.

Advantage: Reds. Even though Johnny Cueto isn't healed from his right lat strain, the Reds are clicking on all cylinders. Tony Cingrani, their rookie starter, has outpitched the more highly touted Gerrit Cole of the Pirates with 111 strikeouts and a .191 batting average allowed in 94 innings. When your No. 5 guy is arguably is good as your No. 1, that's a nice rotation.

Hitters who can carry a team: On the season, the Cardinals have scored 578 runs, the Reds 533 and the Pirates 478, although the Reds do gain some runs from their home park while the Pirates lose a few.

Since the All-Star break, however, the Pirates have actually performed as well as the Cards or Reds, with a .311 weighted on-base average (wOBA) versus .299 and .298, respectively. This time of season, you're looking for that guy who can carry a team down the stretch, like Miguel Cabrera last September or Vlad Guerrero in 2005 or Chipper Jones in 1999. If you had to pick one guy from these three teams to do that, I go with MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, who has been one of the best hitters in the majors since the All-Star break with a .355 average and 1.056 OPS.


Which team will win the NL Central?


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But the Pirates have another guy who can go on a hot streak in Pedro Alvarez, co-NL home run leader at 30 with Paul Goldschmidt. Alvarez is hitting .175 in August but hit .309 with 10 home runs in June, which shows what he's capable of when he gets in a groove. A good sign for Alvarez: Cingrani is the only lefty starter the Reds or Cardinals are using right now and Alvarez has hit 27 of his 30 home runs against right-handers.

Advantage: Pirates. Their offense might not look as good on paper, but it's been as good in the second half.

Who has the bullpen advantage? Aroldis Chapman isn't the automatic save he was most of last season, not with five losses (including one on Friday night), seven home runs allowed in 49⅓ innings and a 3.10 ERA. The Pirates have been without Jason Grilli, their All-Star closer, but he hopes to re-join the team in September and Mark Melancon and the other relievers have stepped up in his abscence. The Cardinals' back two of Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica have been dominant all season, and, now, rookie lefty Kevin Siegrist -- eight hits and 33 strikeouts in 24⅓ innings -- is looking like a third weapon out there, averaging 94.5 mph on his fastball and touching 97.

Advantage: None that I see. All three pens are strong. The Pirates have pitched the most relief innings in the majors, so that's an issue; they need Grilli to return healthy and pitching like he was. I love the way Rosenthal and Siegrist are throwing right now, and Cincinnati's pen has settled down after some early struggles.

Enough … make a pick already: The Reds have been the third wheel in this party all season, but they're finally on a good roll, winning nine of 12. This is the time of season when rotation depth plays a huge factor, as legs get tired and arms get sore. I like the way Cincy's five guys are throwing right now, and I like all the home games the Reds have on their schedule.

I'm picking the Reds now to win the division … putting the Pirates and Cardinals into six minutes of hell.
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington and his St. Louis counterpart, John Mozeliak, spent the requisite long hours at the trade deadline making calls, kicking tires and putting out feelers in an effort to improve their rosters. But when the sellers are dictating the terms, it’s hard for two baseball executives in buyer mode not to feel like the main characters in a show about nothing.

At 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Huntington popped into the media conference room at PNC Park and spent 15 minutes explaining the team’s decision to refrain from an impact move at the deadline. Shortly thereafter, Mozeliak sat in the visitors dugout and shared a similar tale.

The Pirates acquired infielder Robert Andino from Seattle later in the evening and St. Louis traded lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski to Cleveland for a minor league shortstop at the deadline. Throw in a similar lack of activity by third-place Cincinnati, and July 31 was Stand Patrick’s Day in the National League Central.
[+] EnlargeYadier Molina
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesEven absent Yadier Molina for two weeks, the Cardinals didn't make a move.

“There’s no question we forced the issue,” Huntington said. “I made offers that made me incredibly uncomfortable, but we did so with the idea that we wanted to help this club. When the holder group became larger than expected, it made it even more of a seller’s market. And even when those clubs were willing to sell, it was either a difficult match or they didn’t have the players that matched what we were looking for.”

Of the two clubs, the Pirates were operating under greater scrutiny to get something done. How crazy are things in Pittsburgh now that the Buccos enter August in first place for the first time since 1992? When manager Clint Hurdle visited Starbucks Wednesday on one of his daily Man-About-the-Steel City rituals, the other patrons gave him a venti-sized standing ovation.

Recent history has shown that a flurry of midseason moves doesn’t necessarily produce the desired result. Last year, the Pirates acquired Gaby Sanchez, Travis Snider, Wandy Rodriguez and Chad Qualls in July, and those reinforcements couldn’t prevent them from going into a 20-39 free fall in August and September.

Huntington said the team’s primary focus this year was on upgrading the offense, which ranks in the bottom half of the NL in batting average, runs, hits and total bases and near the top in strikeouts. The Pirates checked out an assortment of hitters that included Giancarlo Stanton, Mark Trumbo, Alex Rios, Justin Morneau and Nate Schierholtz, only to discover that the objects of their affection were either unavailable, cost-prohibitive or not a heck of a lot better than the talent already on the Pittsburgh roster. And any deal that mentioned top prospects Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco and Tyler Glasnow was guaranteed to make Huntington swallow hard.

“We were willing to do something stupid,” Huntington said. “We weren’t willing to do something insane.”

In the absence of a new bat, Hurdle said several Pittsburgh hitters are capable of contributing more than they have to this point. Neil Walker entered Wednesday’s game hitting .242 before launching his seventh homer of the season off Adam Wainwright, and Garrett Jones has 10 homers and a .433 slugging percentage compared to totals of 27 and .516 in 2012. Huntington also seems intrigued by minor league outfielder Andrew Lambo, who has hit 27 homers in a Darin Ruf-like power breakout with Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis this season.

The Pirates also felt comfortable not adding a relief pitcher even though their bullpen has logged a heavy workload and the team’s closer, Jason Grilli, is on the shelf with a strained forearm. They have faith in Mark Melancon in the ninth inning and think they have enough young, hard-throwing arms in the organization to overcome Grilli’s absence.

In contrast to the Pirates, who are on an emotional high right now, the Cardinals have to take solace in the knowledge that they’re just going through a temporary funk. They were the best team in the National League for the better part of three months, and they have the second-best run differential in baseball behind the Tigers. Mozeliak wasn’t about to panic and include Oscar Taveras, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong or another top prospect in a trade for a marginal upgrade.

“We didn’t want to make a decision in a six-game vacuum,” Mozeliak said. “In the end, we think we’re going to be a better team and play to what we’re capable of doing. When we looked at how we could have improved our club, we just didn’t have a lot of access to those pieces that could have made a difference.”

At least Mozeliak received some positive news on Wednesday when he learned that All-Star catcher Yadier Molina suffered no structural damage to his knee and will probably be fine with two weeks of rest. The Cardinals are talking to the agent for veteran Kelly Shoppach, who became a free agent after opting out of his minor league deal with Washington. But barring a change, the Cards will stick with Rob Johnson and Tony Cruz behind the plate until Molina returns.

Conventional wisdom says that a significant July deadline trade can boost spirits in a clubhouse, but Huntington and Mozeliak put an alternative spin on the status quo.

“I feel like this is a vote of confidence to the talent we have in there, because we weren’t scrambling to add to it.” Mozeliak said. “For us, those 25 guys in that room right now have to know that we believe in them. And we do.”

A general manager can help boost a player's spirits with a back slap or a kind word. In this case, Huntington and Mozeliak showed their faith in their 25-man rosters by doing next to nothing.

Will Pirates' performance in key spots last?

July, 23, 2013
The success of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013 has been more than just a feel-good story for baseball. Not only are they well on the way from ending a 20-year string of losing seasons, they are very much in contention to win their division for the first time since 1992. The Pirates’ push to the postseason has largely been fueled by effective starting pitching combined with stellar work from their bullpen. Heading into Tuesday’s action, Pirates pitching had baseball’s best ERA at 3.09, the lowest opponents’ batting average at .226, and the lowest OPS at .646.

A part of the success the Pirates are having this year comes from the play of their infield defense. Last week, Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information pointed out that Pittsburgh’s infield defense converted more ground balls into outs than any other team in baseball. One reason for that high conversion rate, according to James Santelli of PiratesProspects.com, is that the Pirates have dramatically increased their utilization of defensive shifts.
[+] EnlargeMark Melancon
AP Photo/Nick WassBeyond Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon has been one the Pirates' key pen performers.

Pittsburgh has had to do what they can to emphasize their pitching strengths in order to overcome the shortcomings of the offense. The Pirates have the fifth-worst team batting average at .243 and their .701 team OPS is in the bottom third of the league. Those numbers get even worse when runners are in scoring position, as the Pirates are hitting a league-worst .222 in those situations while only the Miami Marlins have a lower team OPS than Pittsburgh’s .638 in them. The Pirates compensate for their inability to get men into scoring position with an active running game that has generated 69 stolen bases.

At different points this season, Pittsburgh has relied on one or two players to carry its offense. In April, Starling Marte and Garret Jones led the charge while May saw Jose Tabata and Neil Walker do most of the work. June belonged to Pedro Alvarez, who hit .309 with a 1.080 OPS in the month, but July has belonged to the face of the franchise, Andrew McCutchen.

After a slow start in April, McCutchen has hit .330/.405/.534 with 15 stolen bases, 31 extra-base hits and 39 runs driven in. McCutchen’s overall 2013 numbers are not that far off his MVP-caliber numbers of last season. While his OPS is down 70 points from 2012, he has reduced his strikeout rate from 20 percent to 15 percent; on the bases, he has already exceeded last season’s stolen base total of 20 withs 21 in 94 games played this year.

McCutchen’s hot bat is vital to any postseason aspirations the Pirates may have. When a team is built around pitching and defense, as Pittsburgh is this season, it is critical to have one consistent threat that can change a game in key moments. We have seen that the past few seasons in Tampa Bay, where Evan Longoria had to shoulder a lot of the clutch moments for a team that scratched and clawed for multiple runs in games while relying heavily on its pitching and defense to carry the day. McCutchen continues to prove himself worthy of that role.

Monday night’s injury to Jason Grilli is a paramount concern for the team. Grilli has been amazing in the final innings for Pittsburgh, saving 30 contests and striking out 39 percent of the batters he has faced while limiting them to a .186 batting average. Grilli and Mark Melancon have been arguably the most lethal late-inning duo in baseball. One area those two and the rest of the bullpen have excelled at in 2013 is shutting down the opposition when they have runners in scoring position.

The Pittsburgh bullpen has held opposing batters to a .194 batting average and a .586 OPS with runners in scoring position; both efforts are in the top three spots on the league leaderboards. As a staff, the Pirates are tops in both categories with a .218 team batting average and a .623 OPS which is well above the .256 league-wide average and .728 league-wide OPS for pitching staffs.

The ability to maintain that level of production will be important the rest of this season for one reason. Actually, make that 13 reasons, because the Pirates have 13 games against the St. Louis Cardinals between now and Sept. 8. The Cardinals have the best record in all of baseball and are truly in a league of their own when it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position. Their .338 team batting average with runners in scoring position is 49 points better than any other team in baseball and 82 points above the league average. Their .876 team OPS in that split is 47 points better than any other team and 148 points above the league average.

That amazing effort is led by Allen Craig who is hitting .489/.500/.681 with runners in scoring position, but he is but one of five regulars in the Cardinals offense on the RISP lead leaderboard, as he is joined by Carlos Beltran (.418/.447/.627), Matt Carpenter (.403/.488/.582), Yadier Molina (.395/.471/.523) and Matt Holliday (.368/.458/.515).

In what prove to be a classic unstoppable-force vs. immovable-object argument, we’ll find out if Pittsburgh’s numbers against runners in scoring position are awesome because they have only played St. Louis five times so far, or if the Cardinals’ numbers are so incredible because they have faced the Pirates only five times and have been outscored 26 to 22. In what might decide the NL Central, the next six weeks will tell us which group of statistics is the real deal.

The big questions for this season’s All-Star selections as we headed into Saturday’s selection show: Would Yasiel Puig make it? Who backs up Miguel Cabrera at third base in the American League from a strong field of candidates? Who represents the Astros?

But I’m left with this one: Could the American League have chosen a worse, more boring squad?

Remember, the All-Star squads are chosen by a four-tiered system: The fans vote in the starters, the players vote for the reserves at each position, plus the top five starting pitchers and top three relievers, the managers choose the rest of the squad (with their choices limited due to having to name a representative for each team) and then the fans vote again for the final man.

Got all that?

The player vote is the one that usually causes the biggest mistakes. Last season, for example, the players voted in Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair as the backup first baseman even though he was a platoon player with 28 RBIs at the time of selection. Similarly, Lance Lynn, who had a big April, was voted in as one of the top five starters even though he ranked 28th in the National League in ERA. The ripple effect for selections like those end up causing more worthy All-Stars to not make it. This season, a similar thing happened, most notably with Torii Hunter named as an outfield reserve in the AL.

My quick reaction to this season's American League and National League squads:

Best fan selection: Chris Davis, Orioles. Hardly a household name before the season, his offensive numbers are just too good to ignore, and he’s a deserving starter over Prince Fielder.

Worst fan selection: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The fans generally do a good job -- better than the players -- and while I don’t see Harper as a glaring mistake (I’d put him on my NL roster as a reserve), he did miss significant time with the knee injury. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers would be a more deserving starter (both should be starting over Carlos Beltran as well).

Most controversial AL selection: Justin Verlander, Tigers. He’s not having a terrific season, with a 9-5 record and lukewarm 3.54 ERA, but I don’t have a huge problem with American League manager Jim Leyland selecting the guy who’s been the best pitcher in baseball the previous two seasons.

Most controversial NL selection: Marco Scutaro, Giants. The NL roster is actually pretty solid, but you can nitpick Scutaro and Allen Craig. With Matt Carpenter being voted in by the players, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to add a third second baseman, but he did select his guy and take a slot away from a deep pool of outfield candidates -- Puig and Hunter Pence were added to the final-vote group, but Starling Marte, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo all had All-Star first halves. But, hey, even All-Star teams need professional hitters.

How the Astros screwed the AL: Salvador Perez being voted in by the players as the backup catcher meant Jason Castro was named as a third catcher to represent the Astros. Actually, this is a little unfair, since Castro is having a season equal to or better than Perez’s. But having three catchers on the squad takes a slot away from one of the much more deserving third basemen -- Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre.

[+] EnlargeMax Scherzer
Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SportsWith the American League's weak pitching staff, Max Scherzer could see a couple innings.
How the players screwed the AL: Hunter rode a .370 April to an All-Star berth, but he’s down to .307 with just five home runs. It’s not a great season for AL outfielders, but Hunter is kind of a joke selection: He ranks 24th among AL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR (0.9). Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury are better options.

Weirdest selection: Brett Cecil, Blue Jays. The Jays already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so there was no need to add Cecil. Don't get me wrong, he is having a nice season -- 1.43 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 44 innings -- but this is also a guy with a 4.79 career ERA entering the season. (Granted, mostly as a starter.) Rangers starter Derek Holland was the better choice here.

Team with a gripe: The A’s have a better record than the Tigers yet ended up with one All-Star to Detroit’s six.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, AL: Longoria. Seventy All-Stars were named today, but somehow one of the top 10 players in the game didn't make it.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, NL: Not including the players eligible in the final-player vote, I'd go with Pirates outfielder Marte or Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons.

Worst final-player vote ever: American League. Choose from Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Can I go to a dentist appointment instead? Unless you have a fetish for right-handed relief pitchers, this isn’t exactly the best way to get fans enthused about the All-Star final vote. Why not at least have a final-man vote with Longoria, Beltre and Donaldson?

Most predictable final-player vote ever: National League. Is there any way Puig doesn’t beat out Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Pence for the final vote?

In a perfect world, Jim Leyland does this: The AL pitching staff is a little shaky, so he should try to ride his top starting pitchers. Assuming Max Scherzer starts, I’d pitch him two innings and then bring in White Sox lefty Chris Sale for two more innings so he can face the top of the NL lineup that would probably feature Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez take over from there and hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, with Glen Perkins and Cecil used as situational lefties if needed.

Offensively, Cabrera and Davis should play the entire game, as they’ve clearly been the dominant offensive forces in the AL. Frankly, I’m not too thrilled with the AL bench, especially the outfield. Mike Trout and Bautista should also play the entire game. Use Fielder and Encarnacion to pinch hit as needed for J.J. Hardy or Adam Jones. Manny Machado can replace Cabrera in the late innings if the AL is ahead.

In a perfect world, Bruce Bochy does this: The NL squad looks much better on paper. Assuming Matt Harvey starts, he should be followed up with Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (Adam Wainwright is scheduled to pitch on Sunday and will be unavailable). From there, I’d match up -- Madison Bumgarner or Jordan Zimmermann -- and then turn the game over to three dominant relievers: Jason Grilli, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. (Kudos to Bochy for going with all starting pitchers after the mandatory three relievers.)

Offensively, David Wright should play the whole game in front of the home fans, and assuming Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod as the designated hitter, I’d let him and Votto play the entire nine as well. Without a regular center fielder in the starting lineup (although Beltran, Gonzalez and Harper have all played there in the past), I’d get McCutchen in the game as soon as possible, with apologies to Gomez. I’d hit for Brandon Phillips in a key situation with a better bat like Buster Posey or Craig or maybe for Gonzalez against a left-hander (although he’s hit very well against lefties this season).

And Puig? Yes, once he makes the team, I’d like to see him play as well.

Pirates first to 50, but they're no fluke

June, 30, 2013

First team to 50 wins, the Pittsburgh Pirates? For reals? Legit? By getting there behind Francisco Liriano’s start, a deep pen’s collective hold and save, and the homers hit by Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones, today’s Pirates might have done something no Pirates team has done since the franchise's 1960 championship squad.

Holy moly, we might be witnessing the end of professional sports’ longest, dimmest dark age, not least in terms of Steel City baseball history. Praise be that it might be done for; never have so many suffered for so long to so little reward. A generation of children born in Pittsburgh since the Pirates’ last winning season and postseason appearance have already been eligible to vote since the Buccos’ major-sports record of 20 consecutive losing seasons -- the past six with the Nutting family running the show -- got started. Give it much longer, and they’d have been graduating from college en masse. Say what you will about Cubs fans, but they’ve never had to endure something like this.

It might all seem improbable enough. But by notching his seventh win in Saturday's 2-1 victory over visiting Milwaukee, Liriano is making it clear that his initial strong start is not the flashy return from yet another injury, followed by a predictable fade. He’s notched five quality starts in his past six turns. His walk rate isn’t just down by 1.5 free passes per nine, it’s down below 3.5 BB/9, at which it was when he was helping pitch the Minnesota Twins into one-game playoffs and contention. As easy as it might be to write off Liriano as flaky, this is the guy who was once the sixth-best prospect in baseball (per Baseball America before 2006), and after a year lost to Tommy John surgery on his elbow plus five different 15-day disabled-list stints for shoulder woes and arm soreness, there comes a point at which you have to stop calling the guy flaky and recognize the talent he’s capable of showing when he’s healthy, as infrequent as that might be.

But there’s the rub: That fragility is part of what made him a Pirate, but that talent is part of why the Buccos were smart to get him. The fascinating thing about the Pirates making the leap from sub-mediocrity to best record in baseball isn’t that it’s a surprise. It’s that they have the talent to make it so.

These Pirates aren’t some ragamuffin band of misfit toys -- they are not the Oakland A’s of "Moneyball" legend or present-day fact. This is a team built around past top prospects, whether they belonged to the Pirates or others. Guys like Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker and Alvarez and Gerrit Cole are men that they picked and any team might envy; faded former studs like A.J. Burnett and Liriano and even a well-traveled veteran like closer Jason Grilli -- if you go back to the ’90s and his pedigree as a Giants farmhand 15 years ago -- are past top prospects who they have picked up, recognizing who they’ve been and what they might still be capable of.

[+] EnlargeJason Grilli
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsA Jason Grilli save is worth just as much in the standings as any other save, so why pay more than you have to?
Never mind that they’re rattling off wins while either three- or four-fifths of their rotation is on the DL. (That depends on how you feel about Jeff Karstens’ place on the depth chart.) With Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez due back from the DL within a week’s time, that just means Pittsburgh has the kind of depth in its rotation to sustain big weeks, big months and big seasons, no matter how well or badly its lineup is doing. Add their in-season fixes like switching from the oh-so-glovely Clint Barmes to better everyday option Jordy Mercer at shortstop, and it’s clear the Pirates are willing to fix things on the fly to aim for targets that might once have seemed sky-high.

But that’s the thing. As much as things are going right by reaching 50 wins first, for all that, these really aren’t your daddy’s Pirates. And why is that? How is it that the franchise of Dave Parker, or Roberto Clemente, or Paul Waner, as proud a legacy of right-field greatness as any team this side of Babe Ruth’s employers, could be producing a collective .656 OPS before Saturday’s action?

That’s the lowest RF mark in the National League, the worst among NL corner outfielders (even the Juan Pierre-hobbled Marlins), and worse production than 10 teams in the NL are getting from their center fielders. This is even more epically awful when you consider that right field is supposed to be one of your best run-producing slots, with production that bounces around the standard set by first basemen. It is a huge part of the reason the Pirates rank just 10th in the NL in runs scored per game, and it’s the most obvious fix that, once addressed, would provide a platform for them to really romp in the second half, something that goes beyond just hoping that the rotation's depth and McCutchen's inevitable monster month carry them.

The Pirates’ right-field issue is the biggest problem slot in any outfield in the National League, whether you’re just talking contenders or not -- and the Pirates, despite their recent history for second-half fades, have earned the right to be called contenders. So this isn’t just something on general manager Neal Huntington’s eventual to-do list -- it’s important, and it’s important right now. This is not a problem you solve by getting Jose Tabata back from the DL next week; it certainly isn’t something you settle for patching up by grabbing Jeff Francoeur off waivers and hoping he forgets he’s Jeff Francoeur for a few months. This requires a bold stroke in the same way that breaking from two decades of below-.500 baseball demands something more than an 82-win season.

If you think this is a coming-of-age trade deadline coming up for the Pirates, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Huntington has actually been fairly aggressive at the deadline in recent seasons -- striking deals for Rodriguez, Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider last season and Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick in 2011.

So as far as that goes, the Pirates have proven more than willing to play in the inexpensive end of the deadline market when it comes to the self-improvement sweepstakes. But what would it mean if the people signing the checks would pony up the cash to add a premium bat for right field? Everything. Or Nutting.

The Pirates will be defined not by their ambitions, but by their actions. As brilliant as those have been on the field, here’s hoping that they’re matched by off-field machinations in the month to come. The good folks in Pittsburgh deserve nothing less.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

The Pittsburgh Pirates: From A to Z

June, 27, 2013
Pirates celebrateOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesThe Pirates began Thursday at 48-30, tied with St. Louis for baseball's best record.

The Pirates -- the Pittsburgh Pirates -- have the best record in baseball. In late June.

Want to jump aboard the bandwagon? Here's everything you need to know about baseball's best team (as of this writing).

A -- Andrew McCutchen: Pittsburgh's center fielder is the face of the franchise. He even made the cover of "MLB 13 The Show" this year thanks to fan voting. And it was legitimate voting, not like when the mean kids in high school vote an unpopular girl prom queen as a prank. Almost all of McCutchen's offensive numbers so far are well off the pace of his 2012 career highs, yet the Pirates are still winning, and winning a lot. This is the most balanced Pirates team in decades -- excluding the many Pirates teams that achieved perfect roster garbage equilibrium, of course.

B -- Base-stealing: The Pirates have caught 28 percent of attempted base-stealers this year, good for 13th in baseball. What's so great about that? It's a massive improvement over last year, when they were dead last at 11 percent and caught just 19 baserunners attempting to steal -- the lowest total in baseball in 50 years. The reason for the improvement is twofold. New catcher Russell Martin has a better arm than Rod Barajas, and the organization has decided that ignoring baserunners and focusing solely on the hitter, thereby letting every even mildly ambulatory opposing player who reached first to jog to second, was probably not the best approach. Good thinking!

C -- Cole: The Pirates drafted Gerrit Cole with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. He made his major league debut two weeks ago and struck out the first batter he faced on three pitches. He later broke a scoreless tie with a two-run single. With three starts under his belt, Cole is 3-0 with a 3.44 ERA. On Tuesday against the Angels, he became the first starter not named Justin Verlander to hit 101 on the gun since 2008. He probably should call Kate Upton.

D -- Division: The National League Central has long been considered one of baseball's weakest divisions, even though it has produced two of the past seven World Series champions and four of the past nine NL champs. But this season, the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds mean the Central has three of the four best records in baseball. Just imagine if they still got to feast off the Astros 15 times a year.

E -- Errors: The Pirates have the seventh-most errors in baseball this season, so that's a definite area for improvement. Errors go both ways, however, as the Pirates know well.

F -- Francisco Liriano: The Pirates agreed to a two-year, $12.75 million contract with Liriano in December, but that contract was renegotiated -- under more favorable terms for the Pirates -- after Liriano broke his arm playing with his kids. Liriano is now 6-3 with a 2.30 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 10.0 K/9. A year ago the Pirates acquired A.J. Burnett, who promptly broke his face bunting in spring training and then had a very good season. The lesson is this: If the Pirates sign a veteran pitcher everyone has given up on and then he sustains a comical injury, watch out.

G -- Grilli: The fourth overall pick by the Giants in the 1997 draft, 36-year-old Jason Grilli was given the closer's job this season after Pittsburgh traded Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox. Grilli leads the National League in saves and has an absurd 15.1 K/9. Hanrahan underwent Tommy John surgery in May. It's a strange world when good fortune shines on the Pittsburgh Pirates.

H -- Hurdle: Manager Clint Hurdle has managed to keep the Pirates positive in the wake of last season's historic collapse. Even better, he no longer has the Pirates bunting every time a guy gets on first base.

I -- Inge: Do the Pirates have the best record in baseball because they are pitching well and getting timely hitting? Or is it because of the INGETANGIBLES provided by Brandon Inge? Inge has a .207/.232/.272 slash line, which only further highlights his intangibles.

J -- Jordy Mercer: One of Pittsburgh's biggest weaknesses was thought to be that Clint Barmes provides zero offense from the shortstop position. Barmes has continued to provide zero offense, but now he does it from the bench. Since the 26-year-old Mercer took over at shortstop full time two weeks ago, he has hit .326. While Barmes has a higher OBP than Inge, his name unfortunately doesn't work well with intangibles-related word play.

K -- Kansas City Royals: If the Pirates finally end their streak of losing seasons -- they need to play just .404 baseball from here on out to do so -- the Royals will take over as the baseball team with the most consecutive losing seasons. In football, the Raiders have the longest streak of .500 or worse seasons, because the Raiders.

[+] EnlargeJeff Locke
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesLefty Jeff Locke could go from maybe-fifth-starter material to the All-Star team.
L -- Locke: Twenty-five year-old Jeff Locke entered spring training as one of the options for the fifth spot in Pittsburgh's rotation. He's now 7-1 with a 2.06 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP and kind of has to be put on the All-Star team. He seems to be holding the team's depth chart upside-down.

M -- "Million Dollar Arm": "Million Dollar Arm," a Disney film starring Jon Hamm as J.B. Bernstein, the agent who signed Indian pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, is set to be released in 2014. The movie could have an even happier Disney ending if the team that signed Singh and Patel turns out to not be the laughingstock of baseball.

N -- Nineteen Ninety-Two: It's the year burned into the psyche of every Pirates fan. 1992: The last year the Pirates made the playoffs. 1992: The last year the Pirates had a winning season. 1992: When the sadness began. How long ago is 1992? Jaromir Jagr played in the Stanley Cup finals then. OK, maybe not the best example. But it's a long time ago.

O -- Organizational strength: Not only do the Pirates have the best record in major league baseball, but their Triple-A team has the best record in its league. Baseball America rated their farm system seventh-best at the start of the season, which was before the Pirates brought in two more first-round talents in the June draft. They also have McCutchen signed through 2018. It's going to be really hard to screw this up.

P -- Pedro Alvarez: The former No. 2 overall pick may never hit for average or even get on base much, but when he does connect, the ball often lands in a faraway land. If you want to compare Alvarez to a great Pedro from baseball history, go with Cerrano.

Q -- Quacks: The Pirates made news in the offseason when their bizarre practice of putting prospects through a "hell week" of Navy SEALs-style training was revealed. Of course, if the Pirates end the season with the best record in baseball, expect every organization to start doing this. It's a copycat league. Disagree with me and you owe me 75 pushups.

R – Rotation: In Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Cole, Charlie Morton, Locke, Liriano and Jeanmar Gomez, the Pirates have seven solid starters at their disposal, with James McDonald and Jeff Karstens set to come off the disabled list later this season for a total of nine. When Pirates general manager Neal Huntington took the job, Pittsburgh's rotation featured Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Matt Morris, Tom Gorzelanny and John Van Benschoten. An improvement, wouldn't you agree?

S -- Starling Marte: In his first full season in the majors, 24-year-old leadoff hitter Starling Marte is making headlines with a .340 OBP, 22 steals and eight home runs. His name also has "Star" in it and Marte loosely rhymes with "party," so he is a pun-loving headline writer's dream.

T -- Trades: Last season, the Pirates made the biggest trade deadline acquisition in their history by getting Rodriguez from the Astros. It was a fine deal for Pittsburgh, but Rodriguez isn't the kind of player who shifts the balance of power in baseball. Making a play for Giancarlo Stanton, however, as ESPN.com's David Schoenfield suggested? Yeah, that would do it. The Pirates have plenty of prospects and pitching to make a major deal happen. The one downside: If the Pittsburgh Pirates become heavy World Series favorites, the world probably ends. So there's that.

U -- Underwater: On June 1, Garrett Jones became the first Pirates player -- and second player in PNC Park history -- to hit a home run into the Allegheny River on the fly. Pirates ownership didn't even demand that he reimburse them for the lost ball, which is definitely a positive sign.

V -- Voting: No Pirates are currently on pace to start in the All-Star Game. Is there a better indicator that the team is relevant than getting ignored by All-Star voters? Also, is Cal Ripken still getting All-Star votes? I'm too afraid to look.

W -- Walker: Neil Walker is Pittsburgh’s second baseman. He is also from Pittsburgh. His nickname is the Pittsburgh Kid. Disparage him in any way at your own risk.

X -- eXplode: Burnett's rosin bag exploded in Pittsburgh's season opener.

Normally that would be a bad omen for the Pirates. But they played the Cubs that day, so the Cubs probably sucked up all the negativity in the environment like the sponge of failure that they are.

Y -- Yankees: When Russell Martin signed with the Pirates in the offseason because the Yankees didn't make a comparable offer, he was clearly disappointed to leave the pinstripes. Now the Pirates look clearly superior to the Yankees. There is no one of sound mind who can't enjoy that.

Z -- Zoltan: The Pirates make the "Zoltan" sign -- it's a reference to "Dude, Where's My Car?" ... don't ask -- when they get a big hit. Zoltan also served as the Z in an article very much like this around this very time last season, in which someone wrote that the 2012 Pirates probably wouldn't collapse like the 2011 Pirates because "there are big differences between the 2012 Pirates and 2011 Pirates." Ooof. So, yeah. We’ll see what happens. All aboard the bandwagon! For now. Know that the exits are clearly marked.

DJ Gallo founded SportsPickle.com and has been a staff writer for ESPN's Page 2 and Playbook.
The Pittsburgh Pirates continue to win -- six in a row after beating the Mariners 4-2 with two ninth-inning runs on Wednesday and finishing off a 7-2 road trip against the Reds, Angels and Mariners.

With a makeshift rotation filling in the gaps with A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez currently on the disabled list, manager Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage continue to go to the pen early and often. They pulled starter Jeanmar Gomez, in his first start since coming of the DL, after just 81 pitches and five innings, but with a 2-1 lead Hurdle wanted to put the game in the hands of his relievers. Justin Wilson did allow a game-tying home run in the sixth to Raul Ibanez, but Vin Mazzaro pitched two scoreless frames and Mark Melancon got his second save filling in for Jason Grilli.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Justin Wilson
Jayne Kamin/USA TODAY SportsJustin Wilson ranks No. 3 among relievers for total pitches.
Gomez has made seven starts after beginning the season in relief, but those 81 pitches were actually his most so far. That's the philosophy Hurdle and Searage have followed all season: It's never to soon to go to the pen.

"He gave us the innings we needed and got to the part of the game we're hoping to get to with the lead." Hurdle said. "He was effective again -- real nice job."

The Pirates are averaging 3.55 relief innings per game, second most in the majors behind Toronto, but the Jays have had to use their pen out of necessity; until recently their rotation had been awful. The Pirates actually have the second-best rotation ERA in the majors.

The Pittsburgh bullpen is now 18-10 with a 3.06 ERA. But is it being overworked? Only Astros relievers have thrown more pitches. But let's look at the individuals and focus on total pitches rather than innings.

Justin Wilson: 723 pitches, No. 3 in majors
Jason Grilli: 585 pitches, No. 28
Tony Watson: 575 pitches, No. 31
Vin Mazzaro: 556 pitches, No. 44
Mark Melancon: 537 pitches, No. 56
Bryan Morris: No. 14 since his April 30 recall

That's five in the top 60 when the statistical average would suggest two, plus Morris, who has thrown 32 innings in 21 games since April. Wilson has been the workhorse, but the rookie lefty was a starter in the minors, not that that guarantees he'll hold up all season. Melancon is on pace to appear in 81 games and Grilli 78, but as you can see from the pitch totals Melancon in particular has been very efficient, averaging just 13.7 pitches per outing.

I wouldn't say the bullpen is being overworked, but I would say it's something to watch. You don't want a repeat of what happened to the Braves in 2011, when the bullpen had the third-most innings in the majors but tired down the stretch and went 3-9 in September as the Braves blew a playoff spot. Grilli, after giving up five hits and three runs in his last outing, was given a third straight day off, so maybe you're seeing Hurdle back off him a little.

Everyone think the Pirates need to add a bat, and they probably do. But acquiring another trustworthy bullpen arm would be a cheap addition as well.

There are currently five teams in the majors with 40 or more wins, and three of them play in the National League Central.

From top to bottom, the American League East might be a little bit stronger, but on Friday we got a good look at the intriguing race brewing in the NL Central -- and why it might be so tough for the Pittsburgh Pirates to break through.

The Pirates continued their strong play at PNC Park, beating the Dodgers 3-0 to earn their major league-best 24th home win on the year. Jeff Locke allowed three baserunners through seven innings, and then Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli tacked on a scoreless inning each. It was the winning recipe the Bucs have been cooking with all year.

They caught a break when the Cardinals lost 5-4 to the last-place Marlins, as Jose Fernandez became the first pitcher under age 21 to strike out 10 batters in a game since Felix Hernandez in 2007. (If you're only as good as the company you keep, this Fernandez kid is going places.)

[+] EnlargeJeff Locke
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicLefty Jeff Locke improved to 6-1 and lowered his ERA to 2.19 with Friday's effort.
It also looked like Pittsburgh might gain a game on Cincinnati, as the Reds made three errors and were outhit 12-7 by the Brewers. But Milwaukee was just 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position, and the Reds won 4-3 in 10 innings on an opposite-field, walk-off homer from Jay Bruce.

And now, despite becoming the fifth team in baseball to reach 40 wins, the Bucs sit in third place, three behind the first-place Cardinals and a half-game behind the Reds for second. Such is life in the National League Central.

The Pirates have made a habit these past couple years of playing well in the first half and getting fans to believe they will finish with a winning record for the first time since 1992, only to collapse down the stretch. However, there is reason to believe that this team's performance is more "real." The biggest reason is the pitching staff, which has shown a dominant streak unseen in the previous two seasons.

Pittsburgh's pitchers are currently third in the NL in strikeouts -- a category in which they finished 12th in 2012 and 16th in 2011. In other words, this is not a staff getting by thanks to some well-placed grounders and fly balls. One problem: The two NL teams with more strikeouts are -- you guessed it -- St. Louis and Cincinnati, respectively. Such is life in the NL Central.

The big separator among the three teams is on offense, as the Cardinals and Reds are second and third, respectively, in the NL in runs, while the Pirates are 10th. You see this difference reflected in the respective run differentials: the Cardinals sit at plus-101, the Reds plus-65 and the Pirates plus-17.

Thanks to their stellar bullpen, the Pirates have the kind of team that can typically outperform its run differential, but it's probably going to take 95 victories to win this division, and the Pirates probably can't get there without adding another bat (or two). Realistically, their best hope is the second wild card, but the Giants and Nationals might have something to say about that.

So it seems that the Pirates are a good bet to have their first winning season since 1992 and could win close to 90 games -- while finishing third in their division. Such is life in the NL Central.

As sports fans, most of us are usually simultaneously hopeful and cynical when it comes to our teams. We think every first-round pick or highly rated prospect will become a star, that this will be the season, that a two-week hot streak means more than just a two-week hot streak. At the same, we panic over every blown save and every three-game losing streak.

Pittsburgh Pirates fans know this feeling all too well. They know especially all too well that the team hasn't finished over .500 since 1992. There are Pirates fans in college who have never seen their team play a significant game in September. But the Pirates have toyed with their emotions the past two seasons. In 2011, they were 53-47 on July 25 and leading a weak National League Central; by the end of August they were 18.5 games out of first place. In 2012, they went 34-19 in June and July, were tied for first as late as July 18 and were just 2½ games out of first on Aug. 9; by the end of the month they were 10 games out and then went 7-21 in September.

But the 2013 Pirates … I think this might be a different club, a better club. On Thursday, I watched them beat the Detroit Tigers 1-0 in 11 innings. Here's the thing: Once the game got to the relief pitchers, I expected the Pirates to win. These are the games they're winning this season with that lockdown bullpen that has been so brilliant. On this night, the pen allowed just two hits in 5⅔ innings and Neil Walker, the walk-off hero Tuesday, started the winning rally with a leadoff single. The Pirates are 34-20, jumped past the Reds into second place in the NL Central and have won the second-most games in the majors.

I was on Pittsburgh radio on Wednesday, and host David Todd asked about the outsider's perspective on the Pirates. The two main reasons this club is better, I suggested, is that teams can ride a dominant bullpen a long way; in this day, with relievers pitching a third of every game, a decent rotation plus a great pen can equal a very good pitching staff. Here, a quick stat on why to believe in this staff more than the 2011 and 2012 versions:

2011 first-half totals: 47-43, 3.44 ERA, 16th in NL in strikeouts
2012 first-half totals: 48-37, 3.47 ERA, 14th in NL in strikeouts
2013 through May 30: 34-20, 3.12 ERA, 2nd in NL in strikeouts

The first-half success of the Pirates' pitching in 2011 and 2012 were mirages, fueled by low batting averages on balls in play -- as indicated by their low strikeouts. When their luck turned, so did the results.


Final prediction for the Pirates?


Discuss (Total votes: 6,475)

But look at 2013: This staff is striking batters out. Yes, some of that is fueled by the great bullpen, and, while there are concerns that it's been overworked -- setup man Mark Melancon (0.93 ERA) is on pace to appear in 87 games and closer Jason Grilli (1.06 ERA, 22 for 22 in saves) in 83 -- Todd pointed out that relievers have been very efficient. Grilli, for example, has faced more than four batters in just three of his appearances and thrown 20-plus pitches just four times. Melancon has allowed just 21 hits and two walks in his 29 innings and is averaging 13.4 pitches per outing.

So far, manager Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage have down a masterful job handling the staff. On Thursday, they pulled starter Jeff Locke at the right moment -- two runners on in the sixth, one out, Locke at 96 pitches. With the bottom of the Detroit lineup up, it would have been easy to try to get a couple more outs from Locke. But they brought in righty Vin Mazzaro to face Matt Tuiasosopo, a right-handed platoon hitter, knowing it was probably too early for Tigers manager Jim Leyland to go to his bench (especially in an NL park). Mazzaro worked out of that jam and then escaped a first-and-third, one-out situation in the seventh by getting Andy Dirks to pop out and Miguel Cabrera to ground out.

Yes, Melancon and Grilli will probably blow a lead at some point, but it's the rotation that is much improved. A.J. Burnett has pitched like a legit No. 1, Wandy Rodriguez has walked nine batters in 10 starts and Francisco Liriano has looked very good in his four starts. The keys have been Locke and Jeanmar Gomez, who are succeeding despite low strikeout rates. Thursday's game was my first extended look at Locke, and he impressed. He throws his fastball a lot -- about 66 percent of the time -- but he keeps it down in the zone and gets good late movement on it. It might not be a strikeout pitch, but when he commands it, it's an effective pitch. He mixes in a curveball and changeup to right-handers that he pounds low and away. If he keeps doing that, he can keep winning games.

Are the Pirates for real? Sure, I'd like to see some offense, especially if we expect a little regression from the staff. They're certainly in a tough division, and they have 30 games remaining against the Cardinals and Reds. But maybe it's fair to say the Cardinals and Reds have a lot of games left against the Pirates.

Are the Pirates for real? Let's sign off with some Twitter responses from Pirates fans.
With apologies to the nice starts of the Pirates and Rockies, the most important story line of April has been the Braves' opening up a 3.5-game lead over the Nationals in the NL East.

Considering the importance of winning the division and avoiding the ridiculous wild-card play-in game, the last thing the Braves wanted to do was dig a hole and try to catch the Nats from behind. Atlanta's 16-9 start -- which includes a 3-2 win over Washington on Monday when No. 5 starter Julio Teheran faced off against Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg -- is even more impressive when you consider everything that has gone wrong for the Braves so far:

  • Six-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann hasn't played a game.
  • First baseman Freddie Freeman missed 14 games.
  • Jason Heyward is hitting .121 and is currently on the DL after an appendectomy.
  • B.J. Upton is .146.
  • Dan Uggla is hitting .177.
  • Teheran scuffled through 5.1 innings on Monday but allowed just two runs -- lowering his ERA to 5.08.
[+] EnlargeJustin Upton
AP Photo/Evan VucciJustin Upton is batting .304 with 12 home runs for the first-place Braves.
Plus, they Braves had to play 16 of their first 25 games on the road. Of course, a lot has gone right, beginning with Justin Upton hitting .304 with 12 home runs, Andrelton Simmons playing Gold Glove defense at shortstop, Evan Gattis emerging from Double-A to his six home runs, drive in 14 runs and turn into a cult hero while filling in for McCann, and the bullpen going 5-1 with a 2.07 ERA.

Most importantly, the Braves are now 4-0 against the Nationals, which means the Braves earn an A as I hand out my grades for April in the National League. Justin Upton earns an A+ for his monster month -- only four players have hit more home runs in April (Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols share the April record with 14) and only Bob Horner (14 in July 1980), Andruw Jones (13 in June 2005) and Ozzie Virgil (13 in May 1987) have hit more in a calendar month in Atlanta Braves history.

The Nationals, meanwhile, earn a C- for a lackluster 13-13 start -- they're 5-1 against the Marlins and 8-12 against the other major league opponents on their schedule. The Nationals also reported that Strasburg experienced forearm tightness during Monday's game and will be examined on Tuesday. Strasburg walked four while allowing just two runs in six innings against the Braves, but he hasn't been the Strasburg of 2012, or at least the Strasburg of the first three months of 2012. His strikeout rate is down, left-handed hitters have a .391 OBP against him and his ERA is 3.13, ranking just 26th in the NL. Strasburg earns a C, but teammate Bryce Harper earns an A+.

Some other NL grades for April:

Pirates bullpen: A. A key to Pittsburgh's lead in the NL Central has been a pen that has gone 6-2 with a 2.59 while pitching the second-most innings in the majors and allowing a .202 average, second behind Kansas City's .201 mark. Closer Jason Grilli has gone 10-for-10 in saves and has allowed one run in 11 innings.

Matt Harvey, Mets: A. I'd give him an A+, but he actually allowed a run against the Marlins on Monday. Harvey is 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA and has held opponents to a .153 average. He did throw 121 pitches in just 5.1 innings against the Marlins, but more than anything that serves to show that Harvey has room to get even better. Which is a scary idea if you're a National League hitter.

Marlins: D-. Last in the majors in batting average, home runs, slugging percentage, OPS and ownership.

Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, Reds: A. It seems like there's a perception that the Reds are an explosive offensive team, but that wasn't the case last year (ninth in the NL in runs scored despite playing in a hitter's park) and while the Reds are second in the NL in runs scored in 2013, they also rank ninth in slugging percentage. The Reds rotation, however, was terrific last year and has been terrific again, second to the Cardinals with a 2.97 ERA. Latos and Bailey remain two of the more underrated starters in the NL. Latos threw six shutout innings against the Cardinals on Monday, picking up his second win and lowering his ERA to 1.83. Bailey is 1-2 thanks to poor run support but has a 2.81 ERA. The two have combined for 69 strikeouts and just 17 walks, and when Johnny Cueto returns from the DL, he might give the Reds the best starting pitching trio in the league.

Cardinals bullpen: F. St. Louis starters are 14-6 with a 2.20 ERA. St. Louis relievers are 0-5 with a 5.89 ERA and .301 average allowed.

Pablo Sandoval's waistline: F.

Pablo Sandoval's bat: B.

The decision by the Brewers to sign Yuniesky Betancourt: D-. I mean, really ... Yuni was going to help the Brewers?


Who has been the NL MVP for April?


Discuss (Total votes: 17,432)

Yuniesky Betancourt: B+. He's hitting .286/.305/.532 and has five homers and 20 RBIs in 23 games, helping the Brewers to fight through injuries to Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart. Don't you love baseball?

Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies: A. He's back, he's hitting, he's fielding and the Rockies are in first place. The Rockies have to hope that the strained shoulder Tulo suffered on Sunday isn’t serious (he sat Monday’s game, but there are no plans for a trip to the DL).

Matt Kemp, Dodgers: D-. Heading into Monday's games, FanGraphs rated Kemp 33rd among 36 full-time NL outfielders in WAR -- ahead of only Juan Pierre, Jon Jay and Ben Revere.

Starlin Castro, Cubs: C. I have to remind myself he's still just 23, but Castro is in his fourth season and just hasn't that much with the bat. He's hitting .271 with two home runs, but his approach -- just three walks -- is still limiting his upside. A hitter with an OBP under .300 just isn't that valuable.

Weather in Colorado: F. Please, baseball, don't play games when the weather is below freezing.
Craig Kimbrel Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesCraig Kimbrel led the NL in saves last season and is considered the most dominant closer in baseball.

The Tigers need one. The Brewers thought they had one. The Cubs already have a new one. Some teams probably wish they had a different one. Closers are already melting down in rapid fashion.

On Monday afternoon, with closer Jason Motte sidelined with a sore elbow (he'll get a new MRI on Tuesday), the Cardinals' bullpen imploded in a 13-4 loss to the Reds, led by Mitchell Boggs giving up seven runs in the ninth inning. Now they might have closer issues as well. Rookie Trevor Rosenthal blew a 4-3 lead in the eighth, his second blown "save" of the young season, so he's not necessarily the answer if manager Mike Matheny has lost faith in Boggs.

The Tigers will apparently give Joaquin Benoit their next save opportunity, but many think they need to make a trade for a Proven Closer (tm). The problem ... well, there aren’t really that many Proven Closers out there. And the truth is, most closers weren’t preordained to be closers anyway, many arriving at the role only after failing as starters or finally getting the opportunity in their late 20s. Let’s rank all 30 closers and you’ll see what I mean.

Proven Closers
These are guys who have done the job for more than one season, thus earning the coveted title of Proven Closer.

1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
The best ninth-inning guy in the business, coming off maybe the most dominant relief season ever -- he fanned over half the batters he faced -- in the modern era, or what Goose Gossage likes to refer to as "After I retired."

Before becoming a closer: Groomed as a closer, he's never started a game in pro ball and became Atlanta's closer as a rookie in 2011.

2. Aroldis Chapman, Reds
I'm actually breaking my own rule here since Chapman has only been a closer for less than one season. But unless his control suddenly abandons him, he's obviously the real deal after striking out 122 in 71.2 innings last season.

Before becoming a closer: Lacked the secondary pitches and stamina to make it as a starter.

3. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
He's old, he basically has one pitch and he's coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Anyone want to bet against him?

Before becoming a closer: Failed starting pitcher prospect.

4. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
Starting his eighth year as a closer, which is entering elevated territory. (Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter, for example, only had seven dominant seasons as a closer.) Papelbon had some not-so-clutch moments last season, however, finishing with four blown saves and six losses.

Before becoming a closer: Forty-eight of his 58 appearances in the minors and his first three major league appearances came as a starter, but Red Sox converted him to relief.

5. Joe Nathan, Rangers
Not quite the Rivera-like force he was during his Twins days, but still pretty good. Picked up his 300th career save Monday, becoming the 23rd reliever to hit that mark.

Before becoming a closer: Had a 4.70 ERA in two seasons as a part-time starter for the Giants in 1999-2000, had a 7.29 ERA in the minors in 2001 (5.60 in 2002), made it back, traded to the Twins, then became a closer at age 29.

6. Rafael Soriano, Nationals
Has three seasons as a closer with three different teams, so this will be his fourth year as a closer with his fourth different teams, making him the best example of Proven Closer, Will Travel.

Before becoming a closer: Spent parts of seven seasons in the majors (starting as a rookie with Seattle), many parts of which were spent on the disabled list.

7. Huston Street, Padres
Now entering his ninth season as a closer, Street has recorded 30-plus saves just twice, as he's often hurt and hasn't pitched 60 innings since 2009.

Before becoming a closer: Groomed as a closer since Oakland made him the 40th pick in the 2004 draft out of Texas.

8. Chris Perez, Indians
Now entering his fourth season as Cleveland's closer, he's been an All-Star the past two seasons despite a less-than-awe-inspiring 3.45 ERA and 4-11 record.

Before becoming a closer: Mediocre middle reliever with St. Louis and Cleveland for two years. Fell into the closer role in 2010 because Kerry Wood was injured at the start of the season.

9. J.J. Putz, Diamondbacks
He's had four seasons of 30-plus saves, although he spent three years in between closer jobs. He's another guy who isn't the most durable pitcher around and hasn't pitched 60 innings since 2007.

Before becoming a closer: Started for three years in the minors for Seattle, moved to the bullpen, spent two years as a mediocre middle guy, but learned the splitter and became a closer at age 29 after Proven Closer Eddie Guardado imploded early in 2006.

10. Joel Hanrahan, Red Sox
All-Star closer with the Pirates the past two seasons, but he walked 36 and allowed eight home runs in 59.2 innings last year. Could easily lose the job to former Proven Closer Andrew Bailey.

Before becoming a closer: Didn't make it as a starter with the Dodgers, traded to the Nationals and then to the Pirates. Spent three years as a middle reliever.

One-year wonders

These guys became closers last year, and several of them had dominant seasons. But beware the John Axford lesson: One season does not make you a Proven Closer. Do it again and we'll start believing.

11. Fernando Rodney, Rays
After years as basically a bad reliever (22-38 career record., 4.29 ERA), he signed with Tampa Bay and lucked into getting a save in the season's second game as the fourth reliever of the ninth inning in a game against the Yankees. Went on to have one of the greatest relief seasons ever, with a 0.60 ERA and five earned runs allowed. He's already allowed three earned runs in 2013. Was last year a fluke?

Before becoming a closer: See above. Did save 37 games (with a 4.40 ERA) for the Tigers in 2009.

[+] EnlargeSergio Romo
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty Images)After many seasons as a middle reliever, Sergio Romo finally got the chance to close and got the last out in the 2012 World Series.
12. Sergio Romo, Giants
The slider specialist replaced Santiago Casilla, who had replaced the injured Brian Wilson. Saved 14 games and then allowed one run in 10.2 postseason innings.

Before becoming a closer: Not much of a prospect as a 28th-round pick who didn't throw hard, but Romo was an excellent middle guy for four seasons.

13. Ernesto Frieri, Angels
The hard-throwing righty came over after an early-season trade with the Padres, got the closer job after Jordan Walden struggled and had a terrific season. Might lose his job anyway if former Journeyman Made Good Ryan Madson gets healthy.

Before becoming a closer: Moved to the bullpen after posting a 3.59 ERA in Double-A in 2009.

14. Jason Motte, Cardinals
Took over the closer role late in 2011 and helped the Cards win the World Series. Saved 42 games with 2.75 ERA last year. Currently injured.

Before becoming a closer: Spent first three pro seasons as a catcher.

15. Jim Johnson, Orioles
In his first full year as closer he saved 51 games. Rare among closers, he's a ground ball specialist who doesn't register many whiffs (41 in 68.2 innings in 2012).

Before becoming a closer: A not-very-good minor league starter.

16. Tom Wilhelmsen, Mariners
In his first full year in the majors, he replaced a struggling Brandon League. Did just fine with his mid-90s fastball and hammer curve.

Before becoming a closer: Was bartending. No, seriously.

17. Addison Reed, White Sox
Saved 29 games as a rookie, although his 4.75 ERA wasn't exactly Rivera-ish.

Before becoming a closer: Drafted in the third round out of San Diego State in 2010, he had a dominant relief season in the minors in 2011 (1.26 ERA) that pushed him quickly to the majors.

18. Greg Holland, Royals
Had 16 saves last season, but his job could be in jeopardy after four walks in his first two innings of 2013. Aaron Crow saved Monday's win for the Royals.

Before becoming a closer: Came out of nowhere to post a 1.80 ERA with the Royals in 2011.

19. Steve Cishek, Marlins
Saved 15 games after expensive Proven Closer Heath Bell gakked up several memorable save opportunities.

Before becoming a closer: The sidearmer was never on prospect radar lists because sidearmers are never on prospect radar lists.

20. Brandon League, Dodgers
Saved 37 games for Seattle in 2011, but lost his job early last season due to general lack of impressiveness. Throws a hard sinker so he gets ground balls but not many K's. Pitched better in 27 innings for the Dodgers last season so they gave him a bunch of money. Control was fine in 2011, not so fine last year.

Before becoming a closer: Didn't make it as a starter in the minors despite high-90s fastball.

Journeymen Made Good
These guys became closers essentially because their teams didn't have anyone else. Perseverance pays off!

21. Grant Balfour, A's
Hard-throwing Aussie became a closer last year for the first time at age 34.

Before becoming a closer: Played Australian rules football. OK, not really. Went from Twins to Reds to Brewers before finally having some good years with Tampa Bay.

22. Glen Perkins, Twins
The rare lefty closer had 16 saves a year ago.

Before becoming a closer: Career 5.06 ERA as a starter in 44 games before moving to the bullpen.

23. Rafael Betancourt, Rockies
At 37 years old, he became a closer for the first time and saved 31 games for Rockies in 2012.

Before becoming a closer: Has a career 3.13 ERA, so he'd been a good reliever for a lot of years.

24. Jason Grilli, Pirates
The veteran reliever had a career year last year at age 35 with 90 K's in 58.2 innings and took over the closer role when Hanrahan was traded.

Before becoming a closer: Played for five major league teams before Pittsburgh.

25. Casey Janssen, Blue Jays
Another late bloomer, he got the ninth-inning job after Sergio Santos was injured last year.

Before becoming a closer: The former starter didn't really have a wipeout pitch so he got pushed to the pen.

26. Bobby Parnell, Mets
He's long been heralded as a closer candidate due to his high-octane fastball. Now he'll finally get the opportunity.

Before becoming a closer: One-time minor league starter has spent past four seasons in the Mets' bullpen.

The Import
27. Kyuji Fujikawa, Cubs
The new Cubs' closer could be good, bad or something in-between. I think he'll be pretty good.

Looking for help
28. Tigers. The problem with Phil Coke as a closer is that Phil Coke just isn't a very good reliever. Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal have better stuff but not much experience.

29. Brewers. Axford was signed out of independent ball and had a monster 46-save season for the Brewers in 2011. He's allowed four home runs in 2.2 innings this season and the Brewers may sign Rollie Fingers.

Might not get a save opportunity until May

30. Jose Veras, Astros.
Now 32, he's pitched for the Yankees, Indians, Marlins, Pirates and Brewers and has five career saves.

Before becoming a closer: The Brewers had the worst bullpen in the majors last year and even they didn't want him back.

Offseason report card: Pirates

February, 15, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 79-83 (78-84 Pythagorean)
651 runs scored (10th in NL)
674 runs allowed (7th in NL)

Big Offseason Moves
Signed free agents Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. Re-signed free agent Jason Grilli. Traded Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt to Boston for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Ivan De Jesus and Stolmy Pimentel. Acquired Clint Robinson and Vin Mazzaro from the Royals. Lost free agents Kevin Correia and Rod Barajas.

What, you expected the Pirates to sign Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke and Kyle Lohse? The Neal Huntington regime began in late September 2007. The GM took over a club that won 68 games and has won 67, 62, 57, 72 and 79 games. I guess that's progress. The club he inherited wasn't completely without talent, at least on offense:

--Jose Bautista: Traded in 2008 for Robinzon Diaz.
--Jason Bay: Traded in 2008 in a three-way deal. Pirates got Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Craig Hansen and Bryan Morris. Also known as the poo-poo platter (although Moss resurfaced with Oakland last year and played well).
--Adam LaRoche: Traded in 2009 for Hunter Strickland and Argenis Diaz.
--Freddy Sanchez: Traded in 2009 for Tim Alderson.
--Jack Wilson: Hit .296 in '07. Traded in 2009 with Ian Snell for Jeff Clement, Ronny Cedeno and two minor leaguers.

Look, Huntington took over a wreck of a franchise. The farm system did have Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, but not much else. But Huntington had five players with some value (six if you include Xavier Nady, who had a decent 2007), traded all of them, and got nothing in return. That's one reason the Pirates are still where they're at today.

Huntington's first draft pick was Pedro Alvarez, the second overall pick in 2008. It took longer than expected, but he finally produced a decent season with 30 home runs in 2012. Still, he's hardly a star, hitting .244 last year with mediocre defense and no value on the bases. Buster Posey went a couple picks later. The Pirates selected catcher Tony Sanchez with the fourth pick in 2009, a choice widely panned at the time. He hasn't hit much in the minors (.268 AVG/.365 OBP/.403 SLG). With the second pick in 2010, the Pirates selected pitcher Jameson Taillon, who looks good, although Manny Machado was the next pick. Gerrit Cole was the first overall pick in 2011 and should reach the majors this year. Behind those two upside arms, Keith Law ranked the Pirates' system seventh overall Insider.

Will that be enough to save the Huntington regime? After contending into July the past two seasons only to collapse over the final two months, this may be a make-or-break season for him.

As for the offseason moves, it was smart to trade Hanrahan while his value was high, although I don't think the Pirates got much back. Melancon is just another relief pitcher and Sands has a chance to stick as a platoon outfielder. Martin is an upgrade over Barajas, although backup catcher Michael McKenry actually had better numbers than Martin, and Liriano has had an ERA over 5.00 in three of the past four seasons, so good luck with that. (And now he'll miss the start of the season after breaking his arm in a freak Christmas accident, the day before he was to fly to Pittsburgh for his physical. Only the Pirates.)

Position Players

Well, McCutchen is pretty good. He may have won the MVP Award if he had better teammates.

The Pirates had four regulars with an OBP under .300 last year, but only shortstop Clint Barmes is back in his starting role, and he's there for his glove. Young outfielders Jose Tabata and Alex Presley flopped, so this year's flavors of the month appear to be Blue Jays former top prospect/washout Travis Snider and homegrown Starling Marte.

Marte is a 24-year-old with tools, but in his first exposure to major league pitching he struck out 50 times in 167 at-bats and walked just eight times. That approach isn't going to lead to a long and fruitful career, that's for sure. His career walk rate in the minors was abysmal, so I don't see much -- if any -- star potential here. More time in the minors may be needed, giving Tabata another chance at full-time duty.

That approach is Pittsburgh's overall problem on offense: They were fourth in the NL in homers but last in walks drawn, leading to a .304 OBP. Walks are good.

Defensively, the Pirates ranked 24th in the majors at minus-25 defensive runs saved, with Barmes being the only real plus defender. Barajas was terrible throwing out runners a year ago: 93 steals and only six caught stealing (not a misprint).

Pitching Staff

There is some potential here for an above-average rotation if Burnett repeats, James McDonald figures out what went wrong in the second half (9-3, 2.57 before the break, 3-5, 7.52 after), Wandy Rodriguez pitches like Wandy Rodriguez, and Cole makes a rapid ascension into the big league rotation. Even Jeff Karstens isn't a bad No. 5 starter, a soft-tosser who at least doesn't beat himself.

On the other hand, it's still A.J. Burnett, McDonald's first half may have been a fluke, Rodriguez could be ripe for a decline, and Karstens isn't really that good. You know things are going bad if free-agent reclamation project Jonathan Sanchez appears in the rotation.

The bullpen had a solid 3.36 ERA in 2012, seventh in the NL, but I'm skeptical about a repeat performance. Hanrahan wasn't always dominant, but he blew just four saves each of the past two seasons. Veteran Jason Grilli came out of nowhere to fan 90 in 58.2 innings, so if he pitches like that again he'll be fine as the closer. But guys like Jared Hughes and Tony Watson are good bets for regression, and I don't see much depth.

Heat Map to Watch

What's amazing about McCutchen's final numbers -- .327 average, 31 home runs -- is that it's easy to forget he didn't hit a home run in April. He did fall off the final two months, hitting .252 in August and .254 in September, as maybe the weight of 24 teammates on his shoulders wore him down. He tinkered with his swing mechanics last offseason and it paid off, especially against fastballs. He hit .363/.423/.676 against fastballs, with 22 of his 31 homers. He had hit .280 off fastballs in 2011. The new revamped swing allowed him to do much more damage on inside pitches.

Andrew McCutchenESPN Stats & InformationAndrew McCutchen feasted on fastballs in 2012, especially those on the inner half of the plate.
Overall Grade


How many games will the Pirates win?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,043)

Is this the year? Can the Pirates finish over .500 for the first time since 1992?

I'd like to say yes. I'd like to say that Pedro Alvarez will hit .275 with 40 bombs, and both Travis Snider and Starling Marte will hit .280 (and combine for 40 home runs), and McCutchen will have another MVP-caliber year, and Burnett and McDonald and Rodriguez will win 15 games apiece, and Cole will come up from the minors in May and go 12-5 with a 3.27 ERA.

But I don't see it. The Astros aren't much competition (Pittsburgh went 12-5 against Houston) and the Reds and Cardinals look pretty tough again. But I hope I'm wrong.

19 innings no problem for Pirates this time

August, 19, 2012

The Pittsburgh Pirates can be forgiven for lingering bad memories of 19th innings past. It was the 2011 season that looked like the breakthrough that Pittsburgh has been waiting for since 1992 … until it all came crashing down on July 26, as an apparent blown call at the plate gave the Atlanta Braves a victory in the 19th frame.

The Pirates entered that game last year at 53-47, tied with the Cardinals for the National League Central lead. Much as they were entering Sunday's game, the Pirates were no lock for the playoffs, but they were right in the thick of things. Fast-forward to October and the Pirates were 24 games out of first. It wasn't a collapse, it was an implosion -- the Pirates were an NL-worst 19-42 after that infamous extra-inning contest.

On Sunday, the Pirates and Cardinals -- along with San Francisco the Pirates' closest rivals for the second NL wild-card slot -- slogged through 18 innings knotted up in an increasingly epic 3-3 tie. Who in Pittsburgh could help but recall the moment that turned last season's seemingly magical campaign on its head?

But then with one out in the Pirates' half of the 19th, Pedro Alvarez launched a ball deep into the St. Louis evening. Pittsburgh tacked on two more via an Andrew McCutchen single, and then Wandy Rodriguez held the lead with a 1-2-3 inning for his first victory as a Pirate.

Should the Pirates manage to hold their still-slim lead on the NL's last playoff slot, it will be easy to point at July 26, 2011, and Aug. 19, 2012, as key points in Pirates history. Some will wax poetic about the Pirates breaking free, or of a reversal of franchise fortune. What Aug. 19, 2012, really proves is the quality of this 2012 squad -- far above anything Pittsburgh baseball has seen in recent memory.

Let's not forget the mirage created by the 2011 Pirates' first four months. The lineup featured just four starters with an OPS+ of 82 or lower. The club managed a 3.46 first-half ERA despite a strikeout-to-walk ratio below 2.0 and just 6.2 strikeouts per nine innings. The Pirates' 116 FIP- wound up as the worst mark in the National League. It was, simply put, not a good team.

The differences with the team they’re fielding in 2012 begin with Sunday's hero, third baseman Alvarez. Alvarez was easily the worst hitter on the 2011 Pirates, a team featuring 99 games of Brandon Wood, 128 games of Ronny Cedeno, 100 games of Matt Diaz and 121 games of Xavier Paul. Alvarez managed just four home runs in 74 games, limping to a 58 OPS+ and an early demotion to Triple-A. Alvarez still strikes out nearly once every three at-bats, but his prodigious power is back -- Sunday's game-winner marked Alvarez's 23rd home run of the season, raising his slugging percentage to .467, nearly 200 points above last year's disastrous clip.

Alvarez is just one component behind the improved lineup -- Garrett Jones (131 OPS+), Neil Walker (123), Michael McKenry (140) and obviously McCutchen (180) have all had their say in raising the Pirates' offensive output from 3.8 runs per game in 2011 to 4.2 runs per game this season.

But the biggest improvement for the Pirates has come in run prevention, not run production. The Pirates created their 2011 mirage on pitching and defense. Their 383 runs allowed through the debacle in Atlanta was fourth best in the National League; they nearly doubled that mark in 40 fewer games, allowing a league-worst 329 runs down the stretch.

Adding A.J. Burnett to the rotation was key. The bullpen has featured more than just Joel Hanrahan this season -- after all, the Pirates' closer and six others combined for 12 innings of nine-hit, one-run baseball in St. Louis on Sunday, with setup men like Jason Grilli and Jared Hughes lowering their ERAs to 2.38 and 2.51 respectively.

But the real key has been defense. McCutchen could be in the running for a Gold Glove. If Starling Marte and Travis Snider can return quickly from injuries, they will give the Pirates one of the speediest outfields in baseball. Clint Barmes hasn't hit, but his glove has stabilized the always-difficult shortstop position. McKenry saved the game several times Sunday with clutch stops behind the plate.

Overall, the Pirates own a .720 defensive efficiency, meaning they turn 72 percent of batted balls in play into outs. Only Washington, Seattle, Oakland and Anaheim own better marks, with Washington's .723 leading the league. Last year, the Pirates’ squad finished 25th in baseball at .700, roughly 10 points below the league average.

Sunday's 19-inning victory against St. Louis showed plenty of things -- heart, perseverance and even some good fortune. But it also showed the one thing that really separates the 2012 Pirates from the 2011 version that faltered down the stretch: Talent. The Pirates still have a long way to go, but this year's team is infinitely better equipped to walk the path and carry Pittsburgh into the postseason for the first time since 1992.

Alexi Amarista Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireThat's Alexi Amarista of the Padres sliding into third base, not G.I. Joe.
Jack Moore's work can be seen at FanGraphs and Disciples of Uecker (a SweetSpot affiliate devoted to the Brewers). Follow him on Twitter @jh_moore.

Actually, it's now 53 runs after the Pittsburgh Pirates finished off the Houston Astros with an 11-2 victory on Monday night. On a day when Dusty Baker and the Cincinnati Reds complained about not getting enough All-Star recognition, the Pirates -- who began the day just one game behind the Reds -- quietly accepted their two All-Stars, then went out and whupped up on Houston.

After all, the Pirates are seeking something bigger than All-Star berths.

Wait, did I just write that sentence? As Pirates fan and ESPN.com correspondent DJ Gallo told me Monday night, "I have no idea what's going on. But I like it."

OK, we've been here before. A season ago, the Pirates were tied for first place in the National League Central with a 53-47 record. And then came that devastating 19-inning loss to the Atlanta Braves. And then came disaster. Including that loss to Atlanta, the Pirates went 19-43 the rest of 2011, collapsing to yet another losing season, of which the count is getting to be too many to tally at this point.

So why should we believe in the Pirates this year? Should we, yes, like the Pirates' chances to stay in the race?

Andrew McCutchen

On Monday, McCutchen went 4-for-5 and scored three runs, raising his season line to .354/.407/.600. He's absolutely in the first-half MVP discussion along with Joey Votto and David Wright. If you want to bring put up the "most valuable to his team" line of thinking, it's hard to imagine where the Pirates would be without McCutchen. After all, this is still a lineup that is 15th in the NL in runs scored and last in on-base percentage. The Pirates have scored just 297 runs and McCutchen has scored 50 of them and driven in 52 of them.

You may remember that McCutchen had a terrific first half in 2011 but slid to a .216 mark in the second half. But there's reason to believe McCutchen's improvement is real and sustainable. As Buster Olney detailed recently, McCutchen spent the offseason retooling his swing. McCutchen studied the swings of hitters like Ryan Braun and Manny Ramirez and decided to open up his stance a bit. As Buster wrote, "Now, as a pitcher begins his delivery, McCutchen's swing mechanics are triggered. He raises the bat in his hands; he lifts his left leg slightly and then plants his front foot. His weight shift, from his back leg into his swing, is smooth and powerful, and he fires his bat through the zone."

This is the new and improved McCutchen and he can carry the offense.

James McDonald

McDonald improved to 8-3 with a 2.45 ERA after allowing two runs in seven innings on Monday. With five walks, it was far from his best start of the season, but he gutted out a solid effort after walking three hitters in the first inning. Like McCutchen, McDonald is a different player this. His slider, which he rarely threw a year ago, has given him a third solid pitch with his fastball and curveball. The fastball/slider combo helps set up his curveball and hitters are batting .096 against the curve.

Are there some red flags when you dig into the numbers? Maybe. His batting average on balls in play is .240 and his home run rate is down from last season. But it's also true he's keeping the ball down in the zone. He may not post a 2.45 ERA over his next 16 starts, but he's a good pitcher, would have been a worthy All-Star and I believe he's for real.

The rest of the rotation

There was an obvious reason everyone expected the Pirates to fall last year: the rotation was way over its head. At the All-Star break, the rotation had a 3.62 ERA -- even though it was last in the league in strikeout rate. Those categories rarely mesh over 162 games. A collapse was inevitable, and sure enough the rotation posted a 5.04 ERA after the break. This year's rotation has a 3.96 ERA and while it's still not a big strikeout rotation -- despite the additions of A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard -- it's performing at the level its numbers suggest: a 3.93 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 4.01 xFIP if you like the advances metrics. There's even room to upgrade over current No. 5 starter Jeff Karstens. Burnett has won eight straight starts and is lining up as a solid No. 2 behind McDonald.

Pedro Alvarez

Don't look now, but Alvarez is ... maybe actually productive. Yes, he's hitting .231 and his OBP is just .303, but he's run into enough fastballs to hit 15 home runs. If he can come close to replicating his June numbers -- .262/.354/.571 -- the Pirates have another legit middle-of-the-order bat with McCutchen.

The bullpen

The secret strength of the team. The Pirates' bullpen began the week with a 2.73 ERA, tied with the Reds for best in the NL. Besides All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan, veteran Jason Grilli has been outstanding, with 48 strikeouts in 30.1 innings. The Pittsburgh starters haven't racked up a lot of innings, so the Pirates will continue to rely on their relief corps.

Look, maybe there's reason to worry about the offense. But it has been improving. After a .617 OPS in April and .618 in May, the Pirates had a .785 OPS in June. They actually led the NL with 39 home runs and 146 runs during the month.

So, yes, there are reasons to believe this club is not your 2011 Pirates ... or your 2010 Pirates ... or ... well, you get the idea.

These are the 2012 Pirates and it's time to jump on the bandwagon.

Michael BournDaniel Shirey/US PresswireAs Michael Bourn knows well, what leadoff man doesn't love coming home?