Are the Pittsburgh Pirates Worthy Playoff Contenders?

I was 13 years old the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates won their division. To put that in perspective, the Miami Marlins and the Colorado Rockies didn’t even exist yet, Bill Clinton was about to become President of the United States, and the hit TV show “Friends” was nearly two years away from airing its first episode. That’s how long it’s been since the Pirates have won anything.

In a city that has built a strong reputation for sports success, the Pirates have fallen by the wayside. However, when they entered play on July 3, 2012, the Buccos were only a game behind the Cincinnati Reds for first place in the National League Central Division. Their 43-36 record goes beyond any expectations that fans could have had for 2012, even though the Pirates had a similar record at this point in 2011.

When the team struggled at the plate throughout April and May, it appeared that the season would be lost. While the Pirates were holding their heads above water, there was no way that the pitching staff could carry the club on its shoulders for all of 2012. Most Pirates fans, myself included, believed that the team would eventually fall back toward the bottom of the division.

But when June came around, the team started hitting, and the Pirates are suddenly true contenders for the NL Central. I knew that this club was coming around; there have been signs of it for the past two years. However, I thought that the Pirates were likely two or three more seasons away from contention. Luckily, I was wrong.

There are a couple of different factors that make the Pirates challengers for the division title this season. First, the team’s schedule was front-loaded with contenders. That’s why their current record is surprising. No one expected them to survive after dealing with the Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, and St. Francisco Giants in the first month of the season alone. It didn’t get much easier in May with six games against the first-place Cincinnati Reds and five more games against the NL East-leading Washington Nationals. The Pirates survived the toughest part of their schedule, and now they face a much lighter slate against weaker opponents for the rest of the season.

Second, the Pirates have one of the best pitching staffs in Major League Baseball. Entering play on July 3, Pittsburgh is tied for fifth in ERA (3.49), fourth in hits allowed (636) and saves (30), and 9th in WHIP (1.27). Good pitching almost always trumps good hitting. With the team playing some weaker lineups in the next couple of months, the Pirates’ staff has a chance to lead this team back to the playoffs.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself; perhaps I’m rationalizing a way to end the years of frustration.  All I can tell you is that I truly believe that the Pirates’ drought is almost over. This is the year they not only have a winning season but also make the playoffs.

Derek Ciapala has been following the Pirates since the days when Bob Walk and Doug Drabek took the mound for the Buccos. You can follow him on Twitter @dciapala.