Andrew McCutchen is blossoming into one of the best young players in the game.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates went into the All-Star break as the feel-good story in all of Major League Baseball. They were a game back of the lead in the National League Central and, at 47-43, seemed poised to post their first winning season since 1992.
But, everything changed on the night of July 26 when one of the worst calls you'll ever see caused them to lose a six-hour, 19-inning marathon in Atlanta.
On the surface, it was just another loss, but the Pirates went onto lose 10 of their next 11 games and won only 18 of the season's final 59 games, extending the longest North American professional sports record for losing seasons.
Fast forward a year and here we go again.
Heading into the final weekend before the All-Star break, the Pirates find themselves in first place in the division, but this time they may have some staying power.
Unlike last year, the Pirates have two legitimate starters in righties A.J. Burnett and James McDonald, both of whom probably should have made the All-Star Game. Those two, combined with the dependable Jeff Karstens and whatever they can get from veterans Erik Bedard and Kevin Correia give the Pirates a pretty solid rotation.
At 3.95 their ERA is 10th-best in all of baseball among starters. But their bullpen, anchored by All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan, is tops in the majors with a 2.70 ERA.
It's a shame they probably won't go spending much at the trade deadline, but a Matt Garza or Zack Greinke, or dare I say it, Cole Hamels, would look awfully good pitching in the Steel City down the stretch.
While their pitching may have kept them afloat through the first couple of months, it has been the Pirates' offense that has vaulted them to the top of the NL Central.
No team scored less runs through April and May than the Pirates, but their 146 runs in June were the most in baseball and they have already scored 31 runs in five games in July.
Pittsburgh has actually crossed the plate 51 times in its last seven games. Pretty remarkable when you consider the Pirates managed just 58 runs all of April.
After completing a four-game sweep - the team's first since 2006 - over the Houston Astros, the Pirates now find themselves 10 games over .500 for the first time since that '92 season.
"We don't have to sneak up on anybody any more, but we have work to do," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We've worked hard to get to this spot. We're making our way."
So what has been the key behind this offensive resurgence? The answer is simple. Andrew McCutchen.
A true five-tool superstar, McCutchen is on a short list of players who could be the NL's MVP of the first half. He is blossoming into one of the best young players in the game.
And doing so in virtual obscurity.
Although he went 0-for-3 in the Bucs' win over Houston on Thursday, the majors' leading hitter (.356) had been 14-for-21 with 11 runs scored - the first Pirate since Honus Wagner in 1904 to accumulate such numbers - in his previous five games.
"I saw (Josh) Hamilton get 49 hits in one month, I saw Brett hit .390 for a whole season, and he could have hit .450 for all the hard balls he hit for outs," manager Clint Hurdle said. "But watching McCutchen is fun because it's our guy. He's playing the game the best he's ever played. He's never not fun to watch. Guys are feeding off him."
McCutchen's trying to become the first Pirates player ever with; 15-plus home runs, 50-plus RBI, 10-plus SB, 100-plus hits and a .350-plus batting average at the break. He leads the team in just about every offensive category, and if you take the true meaning of an MVP, is there anyone who means more to their team than him?
Now before anyone thinks the Pirates are suddenly morphing into the Murderers' Row 1927 New York Yankees, keep in mind they are still hitting .237 as a team and their 324 runs scored are still among the fewest in the majors.
But they've improved every month and could really take off after the break.
Pittsburgh starts the second half with a road trip through Milwaukee and Colorado before coming home to host Miami and the Chicago Cubs. The Pirates then close the month with stops in both Houston and Chicago.
Plus, let's be honest, the NL Central is not exactly the AL East.
The best part of what's going on in Pittsburgh? PNC Park is packed night-in and night-out now. For my money, it is the best ballpark in America. Now the atmosphere inside the stadium is starting to catch up with the aesthetics.
Maybe this year we'll all be able to see what it looks like in October.