The 2015 Pirates season is at the midway point; when the all stars of the NL and AL face off against each other to determine which league will have home-field advantage in the World Series. The American League winning the 86th All-Star Game was not the scenario the Pirates wanted. The 2015 Pirates are legit contenders to represent the National League in the World Series, and they would’ve loved the opportunity to “Black Out” the possible AL opponent for four games instead of three.
It’s not so crazy anymore to think the Pirates could actually make a World Series, maybe even win one. The Pirates boast a 53-35 record at the All-Star Break, giving them baseball’s third-best record; second-best in the National League. Unfortunately, the team with the better record in the NL is the hated St. Louis Cardinals, who stand 2.5 games ahead of the Pirates in the NL Central. But let’s put this in perspective. It wasn’t that long ago, June 28th in fact, the Pirates were NINE games behind the Cardinals. It seemed that no matter what the Pirates could do, they couldn’t gain any ground on the Cards. This is also a Cardinals team that has lost ace Adam Wainwright and first-baseman Matt Adams for the year, and has been without all-star outfielder Matt Holliday since June 8th, yet they keep winning. They have baseball’s best record. The Pirates set their primary goal for the season to win the NL Central. No more one-game playoffs.
The season didn’t start the way the Pirates wanted it to. An average April with a record of 12-10 was followed by a 14-14 May. Only two games over .500 through the first two months wasn’t going to get the job done, especially with St. Louis playing as well as they were and the Chicago Cubs becoming a threat in the division as well. June faired much better for the Buccos, going 17-9, but they still found themselves trailing the Cardinals in the division by a wide margin.
Fortunes changed for the Pirates when the calendar rolled over to July. The last day of June was the start of a three-game set in Detroit, then the Pirates would finish off the first half of the season with a 10-game home stand with Cleveland, San Diego, and St. Louis; four of those games against the Cards. The Pirates went 11-2 in those 13 games, losing only one game to Cleveland and the series opener against the Cardinals. What’s not shown in the numbers is how the Pirates won those games, especially in the San Diego and St. Louis games. They displayed mettle. They displayed mental toughness. They showed that they never give up, no matter what the circumstances are. The final two games against the Cardinals were the most exciting games off the Pirates first half, walking off in extra innings in both games. If the Pirates were going to actually make a run for the division against the best team in baseball, and avoid yet another one-game wildcard playoff, they would have to send a message. They need to beat the Cardinals. They can’t rely on other teams to do it for them. When St. Louis shows up on the schedule, they need to find a way to win. That’s exactly what they did in the crucial four-game series. Andrew McCutchen walked it off with a 2-run homer in the bottom of the 14th on Saturday night; the third time the Pirates came back in the game. The following night, Gregory Polanco hit a bases-loaded line drive into right field to cap a 3-run 10th inning to win 6-5. It was the perfect way to end the first half. The Pirates gave themselves all the momentum in the world to carry into the second half, while giving the Cardinals a really bad taste in their mouths. There’s no better way to bookend the first half of the season.
The Pirates have many players that have contributed to the success that is the 2015 season so far, but have also had some let-downs. Here are my first-half team awards:
Most Valuable Player: Andrew McCutchen. He started the season by hitting an abysmal .194 in the month of April. Many sources believe he struggled due to a tweaked knee from Spring Training. McCutchen has turned it around though, batting .325 from May 1st through the All-Star Break. He is also on pace to set a career high for RBI’s. He’s having another stellar season, throwing his name into the conversation of National League MVP. And let’s face it, if Cutch isn’t in the lineup everyday, the Pirates aren’t 2.5 games behind the Cardinals. He’s irreplaceable.
Least Valuable Player: Gregory Polanco. He hasn’t been terrible, but he has yet to go on a hot streak and has been a liability on the bases, even with his 17 stolen bases. Right field is a position of interest at the trade deadline for the Buccos, and it’s mainly because Polanco hasn’t shown much improvement from his rookie campaign.
Most Valuable Pitcher: Gerrit Cole. He has used his third year in the big leagues to show that he’s the ace the Pirates thought he could be when the drafted him first overall in 2011 out of UCLA. He has 13 wins, the most in baseball, and has a more than solid 2.30 ERA. He’s on pace to surpass 20 wins and has the right to be in consideration for the NL Cy Young Award. He needs to continue what he’s doing for the Pirates to make a run.
Biggest Surprise: Francisco Cervelli. The Pirates and their fans wanted Russell Martin back very badly, but the writing on the walls was there all along with the type of season Martin had: he was going to get a massive contract from somewhere else and the Pirates weren’t going to pay $16.4 million a year for a catcher. Instead, they traded a possibly valuable bullpen arm, Justin Wilson, for Cervelli with the intention of making him the everyday catcher. Cervelli’s biggest foe has always been his health. When healthy, he’s shown massive potential and the Pirates are reaping the benefits of a healthy Cervelli. He has brought well above average defense, excellent pitch-framing ability, and a .294 average hitting in the bottom half of the lineup. Cervelli’s performance has made people ALMOST forget about Russell Martin, and that in itself is quite an accomplishment.
Needs to step up: Pedro Alvarez. In just about every aspect and statistical category, Pedro has met expectations EXCEPT for his home run total. Since adjusting his swing to reduce his strikeout rate after the 2013 season, Pedro’s home run production has gone down significantly. Granted, he was inured for a good portion of the year last year. However, in the time he played, his adjusted swing only saw his average and strikeout rate slightly improve and his home run rate go down. He has 12 home runs right now and at the rate he’s going, he won’t even crack 25. After hitting 30 in 2012 and 36 in 2013, the expectation for Pedro is home runs. The Pirates need the 2013 Pedro to show up. It’s that force in the middle of the lineup that can give protection for hitter like McCutchen and Marte and change the game with one swing.
Rock solid: A.J. Burnett and Mark Melancon. These two guys can’t go the first half of the season without being recognized. Burnett signed with the Pirates for one final season in his stellar career and he has been a crucial part of the pitching staff and leadership in the clubhouse. He has a 2.11 ERA and was selected to his first All-Star Game ever, deservingly so. In regards to Melancon, the Pittsburgh faithful were just about ready to give up on him as the closer when he struggled early. After recording his first save, he blew the next opportunity and showed significantly decreased velocity. Since then, he has recorded 28 straight saves and been nearly impossible to score on. These two guys are without a doubt rock solid and the Pirates have needed their contributions to get where they are.
The trade deadline is just two weeks away. Neal Huntington and the rest of the Pirates front office will try to make the right moves to piece together a run at the division title. That’s their goal: the NL Central Crown. They have the ability to do it. They’ve shown the ability to win at all costs and if the first half of the season has shown anything, it’s been mettle; the will to never give in.
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