Sunday, it took the Pittsburgh Pirates six-and-a-half hours to beat the Brewers, but -- thanks to Russell Martin's pinch-hit single in the 14th inning and the bullpen's most brilliant performance yet -- they did it. And thus, the Pirates finished the first half of their schedule with a nine-game winning streak and the best record in their division. And their league. And their major professional sport.
Which makes the Bucs' streak of 20 straight losing seasons seem awfully vulnerable, and which makes their chances of reaching the playoffs terribly likely. But of course we've said some of these things before. In each of the last two seasons, the Pirates played well through the first half of the season (and beyond), only to collapse down the stretch and keep that blasted streak alive. Granted, neither of those teams had baseball's best record after 81 games. But is this team fundamentally better than those teams?
I know we've asked this question before, but this team is so bloody interesting that I think it's fair to ask again.
First, their record at the halfway point in each of the last three seasons:
I had to check, and ... yeah, the Pirates' collapse two years ago didn't come until well after the All-Star break. On the 24th of July, they beat the Cardinals to run their record to 52-47 and pull into a first-place tie with St. Louis and Milwaukee; the Bucs won again the next night, too. But on the 26th they pitched into a terrible slump, and their 18-43 record the rest of the way was easily the worst in the National League.
Okay, so what about their run differentials at this point?
Last year, the Pirates were in first place after 81 games; one game ahead of the Cardinals, and three games ahead of the Reds. But the run differentials told a different story. The Pirates weren't bad ... but the Reds (+34) and especially the Cardinals (+65) seemed better. And of course the Reds and the Cardinals both wound up in the playoffs, while the Corsairs died on the vine. At 34-47, they weren't completely horrible in the second half of the season, but they couldn't keep up with the other contenders, both of whom played exceptionally well down the stretch.
And this year? Once again, the Pirates are slightly ahead of the second-place Cardinals, and even more ahead of the third-place Reds. And once again, the Pirates' run differential isn't nearly as good as the Cardinals' run differential; in fact, this year the gap is significantly higher, as the Cardinals' +112 differential is easily the best in the majors. If you believe in run differentials and projections at all, you have to figure the Cardinals are going to play exceptionally well down the stretch and probably edge the Pirates for the division title.
That's the bad news. The good news is that the Pirates remain a great bet for the playoffs. They've got a better record and run differential than they've had in either of the last two (terribly disappointing) seasons. Best of all, they've got HUGE leads over their competition for the second wild card, if things come to that. Even assuming the Bucs are caught by both the Cardinals and the Reds -- which is unlikely -- the Pirates currently lead the Nationals by 10 games ... and the Nationals would take the second wild card, right now, if the Reds didn't exist.
But wait, there's more!
These Pirates are better than your 2012 self's Pirates.
Last summer, in a well-advised effort to stay afloat, management traded for Gaby Sanchez and Wandy Rodriguez. That didn't work, exactly ... except both players were also locked in for this summer, and both have played well. Well, except Rodriguez has missed nearly a month with a forearm injury and apparently won't be back soon. So having Gaby for a whole season is a plus, and we'll see if Rodriguez adds to the dozen starts he's made.
Last summer, the Pirates summoned Starling Marte from the minors in late July, and he played semi-regularly the rest of the way. This summer he's the Pirates' every-day left fielder, and one of the better left fielders in the league.
Last summer, the Pirates had banjo-hitting Clint Barmes playing shortstop every day. This summer, they've installed good-hitting Jordy Mercer as their every-day shortstop.
Last summer, Francisco Liriano was getting killed with the Twins. This summer, Francisco Liriano's got a 2.23 ERA with the Pirates.
This is just a better team, with more depth and not a single hitter having a wildly out-of-character season. The Pirates rank sixth in the National League in road OPS, and that's roughly how good they really are.
You know what, though? If you were looking for the sort of team that might well blow a 10-game lead -- not that we would do anything like that -- the Pirates might well be that sort of team. Mostly because of their pitching. It doesn't seem that Wandy Rodriguez can be counted on. A.J. Burnett's on the Disabled List; his rehab seems to be going well, but with these things you never know for sure. Liriano's probably been a little over his head. If you're making a list of pitchers with ERA's far better than their other numbers would suggest, Jeff Locke (2.06) is very near the top of that list.
And then of course there's Jason Grilli's ERA and the Pirates' 15-10 record in one-run games.
The Pirates aren't in first place because of their hitting; they're in first place because their pitchers lead the entire National League in ERA. But it's not at all clear that the Pirates' team ERA accurately represents their true abilities, especially considering their current 25-man roster.
When I began writing this essay, I assumed there was almost no way the Pirates could blow it again. If Rodriguez doesn't come back soon (and strong), will Burnett and Liriano and Locke and Jeanmar Gomez and Charlie Morton and rookie Gerrit Cole really be enough?
For the Pirates' first winning season in more than 20 years, yes. For a playoff spot, though? Probably. But this situation does bear further watching. So we will watch further.
For much more about the surging Corsairs, please visit SB Nation's Bucs Dugout.