AJ, Cutch, JMac, Zoltan. There's been a lot to take away from the first half of the Pittsburgh Pirates season. I'll break it down for you in my own words.
HOW MANY GAMES OVER .500?
The answer is 11. This team that many were just hoping at the beginning of the year to be at around the .500 mark, is looking like a contender for the National League Central. Pennant talk is still on hold as we enter the break.
BURNETT, JMAC AND COMPANY
The Pirates starting pitching staff is deeper this season. With the addition of veteran A.J. Burnett, a cast-off from the high-rolling Yankess, Burnett fits in well with the Pirates. Ten straight wins since dropping his first two decisions, Burnett has been a leader for this squad. James McDonald is another. A pitcher that had potential last year, has improved in almost every area of his game. 10 strikeouts on Saturday against the Giants and posting a 9-3 record and an ERA of 2.37. Kevin Correia has shown improvement over his past few starts, Karstens' outing against Houston in his second game back from the DL makes everyone more optimistic. Erik Bedard has struggled as of late. Be thankful the Pirates have a good bullpen. They seem to get a lot of work when Bedard is on the mound.
There's nothing like a little Grilled Cheese late in the game. Jason Grilli, a fan favorite and a guy who will follow you back on Twitter, is posting an ERA of 1.87 this season. Juan Cruz is another good reliever, and we learned that Brad Lincoln is a better reliever than a starter, after he stepped in to replace an injured Jeff Karstens. Joel "The Hammer" Hanrahan gets the job done as a closer, even if it's not pretty, and rarely blows a save opportunity.
CUTCH IS CLUTCH
The baseball world will focus on Andrew McCutchen in Kansas City this week. McCutchen deserves a lot of recognition. The Pirates were depending on him for a majority of the offense early in the year. The game has become simple for him over the past month. Two home runs the day before he takes part in the Home Run Derby just makes it even more amazing. McCutchen leads the majors in batting average (.362) and has 60 RBI's. The chants of "MVP" this week at PNC Park should not fall on deaf ears. He's a candidate, and if he continues on this path, he will be the winner.
This homestand before the All Star Break saw the Zoltan hand gesture reach an all-time high with the popularity with the fans. The players were doing it as a team building thing after having a "Bad Movie Night" with "Dude, Where's My Car?" Now the fans are doing it. But many are still making an "S" and not a "Z." Folks, take the next four days to practice doing the Zoltan correctly. Remember it's left hand on top.
HOW DIFFERENT ARE THEY FROM 2011?
We all came down with Bucco fever last summer. Sadly, it ended as quickly as it begin. But this year is different. The doubters and skeptics are starting to come around, much like the offense as of late. The schedule is in their favor in the second half. If you look at July, you have to be optimistic that this team could be 15 games or more above .500 by August. The pitching is a lot better, including the bullpen, and overall, it is a team with good chemistry, and they're enjoying it. Fans should enjoy it too.