The first half of the Pirates' season may not defy belief. In baseball, teams are always turning over new leaves with every turn of the calendar. It does, however, defy reason.How does a club defined by offensive impotence for two months lead the Major Leagues in scoring and the National League in home runs in the third? How can a team spend the season's first 55 days in the familiar netherlands below .500 -- and spend the All-Star break atop the NL Central with a 48-37 record?
It is the stuff Hollywood turns out, and indeed we have seen this on the silver screen. This is the remake, The Bad News Bucs, a collection of baseball greenhorns, scoundrels and retreads having the time of their lives by ganging up on expectations for the common good -- and for a city-full of soul brothers."All of us have chips on our shoulders," admitted James McDonald, the team's co-ace with A.J. Burnett. "Everyone looks at Pittsburgh as a team you can come in and beat. We're here to let guys know we're competitors, we're here to be good for a while." They've been good already for a good while. But they have also been here before, a year ago entering the break in a similar contending position, in third place but only one game behind. Manager Clint Hurdle's year-long mantra -- "Finish ... put the 2011 experience to use." -- is about to be put to the grand test. "A year ago, we experienced four months of good baseball, then two months of wipeout baseball," said Hurdle, referring to the fade to a 72-90 finish, the club's 19th straight under .500. "They walked away with a better comprehension of what you need to do, how mentally tough you have to be, to win your division." In April and May, on a historically-poor pace, the Pirates batted .218, scored 147 runs and hit 38 home runs. In June, in half as many games, they scored 146 and clocked 39. This turnaround wasn't brought about by major changes to the roster; there weren't any until Drew Sutton's switch-hitting bat arrived in late June. The only change was to the mindset. Given ample rope by a pitching staff that for a long time made the most of the least -- despite the offensive woes, the Bucs were never deeper in the hole than four games under .500 -- the batters eventually learned to not take yesterday's failure into the batter's box for today's at-bat.
|MVP: Andrew McCutchen Leads the club in every imaginable offensive category.|
|Cy Young: James McDonald Consistent and domineering most of the time, untouchable some of the time.|
|Rookie: Jared Hughes His sneer and stuff have been critical bullpen components.|
|Top reliever: Joel Hanrahan Return of swing-and-miss slider has made him even tougher.|
Players to watch in second half
|Pedro Alvarez Has been streaky hot and cold; what'll become his predominant temperature?|
|Juan Cruz A key, but perhaps most brittle, cog in the end-game relief shuttle, between Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan.|
|Clint Barmes After a lot of early company, by midseason stands out as the lineup's only weak link; how long can the Bucs afford a .200-hitting shortstop?|
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.