The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of the feel-good stories of the season. Finally, finally. I don’t even think I can jinx the Pirates by saying that it looks as if they are at last going to shake the sub-.500 curse which has followed the team for a generation. Right now in Pittsburgh, at the All-Star break, it is not a question of whether or not the team with the longest seasonal losing streak in American team sport history will finish over .500, but whether or not the Pirates can win the National League Central Division.
They can, but they probably won’t. They can still make the playoffs, but might not.
That’s because the St. Louis Cardinals have been playing some of the best ball in the sport and have a hold on first place and the Cincinnati Reds are hovering right over the Pirates’ shoulders. It’s possible that Pittsburgh will have its best record in 21 years (almost certain, in fact) and not make the post-season. A lot of baseball fans will be rooting for the Pirates to make the city’s wishes come true and make the playoffs since it is an old, tradition-laden team. Tradition is a rumor to some in that fair city. High school graduates haven’t ever witnessed any kind of success in their lifetimes.
This year does seem different. The Pirates have had superb pitching and closer Jason Grilli (29 saves), set-up man Mark Melancon, and one starter, Jeff Locke, are among five Pittsburgh players chosen for the National League All-Star squad. Position players Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez are the others and the total of five picked is the most for the team in 41 years.
The NL Central is the toughest division in the league, and maybe the sport. Someone worthy of the playoffs will be left out among Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Cincinnati. Forget the rest of the division, although the most surprising thing about the Chicago Cubs is that they have been as good as nine games under .500. The Milwaukee Brewers in last have been worse.
Atlanta leads the NL East. That race has not been the Washington Nationals’ runaway that many of us predicted. Perhaps Washington is suffering from The Curse of Stephen Strasburg. Last year the Nationals unwisely shut down Strasburg before the playoffs. This year the Nationals haven’t hit for him and he has the worst record of his career. The division is weak, so the Nationals can still win it. Given their injury problems the Philadelphia Phillies are unlikely to press the Nationals and the Mets are going nowhere. Miami is paying for the sins of owner Jeffrey Loria and will live on in the cellar as the worst team in the league.
We all thought that the Dodgers would run away with the NL West, but they staggered out of the gate, stumbled through May and only recently as players regained health seemed prepared to make a move towards the top where the Arizona Diamondbacks, (reaping the reward of fine play by pitcher Patrick Corbin and slugger Paul Goldschmidt) have resided.
The Colorado Rockies have been a little bit better than most of us expected, but the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants have been a disaster and are closer in the standings to the last-place San Diego Padres than to first place Arizona. I don’t see that changing.
No individual has been a bigger surprise in the game than LA’s previously unknown Cuban defector Yasiel Puig whose all-around play has startled the universe. Newcomers always whet the appetite of the fans as they introduce themselves to the majors and it’s fun to watch a new star emerge and become established.
However, one other NL player has been just as big a longshot to burst upon the scene as Puig. A bit more out of the limelight, Milwaukee shortstop Jean Segura has been Puig for longer than Puig has been Puig. Coming into the season the 23-year-old Dominican had 45 Major League games on his resume. At the All-Star break Segura has 11 home runs, 36 RBIs, 27 stolen bases and is batting .325–as a middle infielder.
Yes, he is on the All-Star roster and taken together, stats and honors, Segura should be classified as the breakthrough player of the year.