Sunday, July 8, 2012

#WhyNotNow

Andrew McCutchen looks to keep up his
torrid pace in the second half of the season.
You didn't see it for the entire first half finale until Andrew McCutchen stepped in front of the stairs to the Pirates dugout.

A boy in a swarm of fans watching Cutch participate in a post-game interview held a sign that said "#WhyNotNow?" and listed all of the pennants that Pittsburgh can claim. The Pirates announcers asked the star what that hashtag that he frequently uses was all about.

"It's just saying 'why not now, why not us, why not the Pirates this year?'" he answered. He did have a point.

Pittsburgh, after all, is alone atop its division at the All Star break for the first time since 1997. That year, Pittsburgh finished 79-83. But that was then, and this is now.

This version of the Pirates has a legitimate MVP candidate, perhaps the favorite, in McCutchen. Don't be fooled by his relaxed, almost lazy batting stance. The man is lethal at the plate. He leads the team in average, hits, runs, RBI, and stolen bases. And it's not close. He has carried the Buccos to their best first half of this millenium and their best record (11 games over .500) since 1992, a year before I was born.

Even more encouraging, perhaps, is how the Pirates have taken a liking to the confines of PNC Park. Pittsburgh leads the league in home winning percentage, now at an impressive .674 clip with 29 wins and 14 losses. For a team that usually limps into the All-Star Break, it is also worth mentioning that the Buccos have won eight of their last 10 before McCutchen and closer Joel Hanrahan depart for Kansas City to participate in the festivities.

But even as the Pirates have set this record pace in comparison to the last two decades, they could get even better. Pedro Alvarez is still batting a hair over .230, and since June 16 his average has been more than 100 points higher. Neil Walker has torched opposing pitchers of late, capping off the first half of his season with a 5-for-5 day, a far cry from his pathetic start at the dish.

Most importantly, the pitching staff has been deep and effective. AJ Burnett, who I totally opposed before the season, won 10 games before the All-Star break. James McDonald is putting up Cy Young-worthy numbers, even though he wasn't considered for an All-Star spot from NL manager Tony La Russa.

The bullpen has been spectacular, as the Buccos have gone 42-0 when leading after seven innings. Even more stunning is that Pittsburgh is 42-14 when scoring three or more runs on the season. Unofficially, I'd say that's probably easily best in the bigs.

Although the offense got off to a historically awful start, they led the MLB in scoring in June, and they have shown a potent offensive attack thus far in July. It's just a shame that the All-Star Game had to break up the momentum.

But when we come back four days from now, we have to ask, again, why not now? Why not these Pirates? The pieces are there. The division is theirs for the taking. Rumor has it that Neal Huntington is looking to add yet another bat to the lineup (possibly Justin Upton) to take some pressure off of McCutchen. Another offensive weapon in this lineup could push the Pirates to serious playoff contention.

So we're here at the break and the Pirates lead the NL Central by a game. We saw the collapse last year. But I'm telling you we won't see another this time. The pitching has been too good. The hitting has been too hot. McCutchen has been too steady to lose focus like he did in the second half of last season.

The former first-rounder who dons the number-22 jersey has done a lot of things the best on the team. He has hit the best, fielded the best, and has led the best.

But most importantly, he sounded Pittsburgh's thoughts the best, saying "why not now, why not us, why not the Pirates this year?"

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