Can the Pirates keep winning?

Traded from the Yankees, A.J. Burnett has found new life in Pittsburgh, and was a pitching machine...

Traded from the Yankees, A.J. Burnett has found new life in Pittsburgh, and was a pitching machine in June going 5-0.

MIKE GANTER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:13 PM ET

The hottest team in baseball?

No, not the Texas Rangers or the New York Yankees. We’re talking about the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The same Pirates club which has finished no better than fifth in its own division in 13 of the past 19 years and has not experienced a winning record in 20 seasons is making believers of the baseball fans in Pittsburgh one more time.

Having just come off a sweep of the Houston Astros, the Pirates sit atop the National League Central, two full games in front of Cincy and 21/2 clear of perennial division winner St. Louis.

They have won eight of their past 10 and have won or tied seven consecutive series. The last time they lost a series was mid June, a three-game sweep by the Baltimore Orioles. Before that they won or tied the previous five series.

It’s enough to make a guy drag out his old Willie Stargell and Dave Parker trading cards from that celebrated 1979 We Are Family club.

The last time the Pirates enjoyed any success Barry Bonds was a Pirate and performance-enhancing drugs — at least the steroid kind — were thought to be a problem specific to professional wrestling. That was 1992 and the Bucs were just finishing up a run of three consecutive division titles, although with no playoff success to speak of.

In the 19 years since they have not sniffed a record better than 79-83. The Pirates best season in the past 10 is the 75-win season in 2003. No other professional sports team in the big four of sports has gone 19 years without a winning record.

Andrew McCutchen, James McDonald and yes even A.J. Burnett are threatening to bring winning baseball back to Pittsburgh.

The thing is you look at their collective makeup and you wonder how. Burnett went on a tear in June going 5-0 and McDonald has been pretty good, but a starting five of those three plus Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens isn’t in the ballpark of Maddux, Smoltz, Glavine et al.

Granted the Pirates starters have collectively pitched to a 3.95 ERA and a 32-30 record. The relief corps has been even better led by closer Joel Hanrahan. Combined Pirates relieves are 14-6 with a 2.70 ERA.

Offensively outside of centre fielder Andrew McCutchen, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of sizzle there.

McCutchen is the team leader in just about every offensive category. His .356 batting average is actually tops in the majors at the moment, tied with San Francisco’s Melky Cabrera.

But behind McCutchen on the Pirates production list comes names like Neil Walker, Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee, not exactly household names in the majors.

All of which begs the question: Can the Pirates sustain this?

Whatever you believe, don’t try and tell Clint Hurdle they can’t. The Pirates manager has made it his mission to make this team believe in itself since he was hired in November of 2010. The message didn’t take right away but they’re all converts now.

“You’ve got to be able to walk and talk winning,” Hurdle told MLB.com recently. “Our guys are walking better. They’re talking better. They believe in things they can’t see, but there has been some increments of tangible evidence. We can play this game.”

A big part of the Pirates success going forward, and Jays fans can relate to this, is the money the team has poured into amateur scouting and development the past few years.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Pirates spent $30.7 million on the amateur draft from 2009-11, more than any other franchise over that span.

The rewards of that are only beginning to be felt, which should bode well for the team’s future.

But right now all anyone in Pittsburgh is talking about is can they keep this going for another half season.

The only definitive answer to that is only time will tell.

QUICK HITS

Matt Kemp’s return might be just around the corner, but the Dodgers will now have to get by without another regular in shortstop Dee Gordon. Gordon tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right thumb Wednesday night on a head-first dive into third on an attempted steal. Gordon stole the base, his MLB-leading 30th of the year but will now be out six weeks following surgery to repair the thumb. Jerry Hariston will see time at shortstop in his absence while his leadoff role will be filled by among other people, Mark Ellis, who just returned from the disabled list ... Another team that can’t seem to catch a break on the injury front, the Boston Red Sox, got more bad news recently. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia will be put on the disabled list Friday. He has been scuffling since his return from a four-day shutdown in early June. The problem is soreness in his right thumb which has hampered his abilities at the plate. He’s hitting just .210 with a homer and 12 RBIs since June 5 ... 3B Kevin Youkilis might have been spare parts for the Red Sox but in Chicago now with the White Sox he seems to have found a home. Made expendable by Will Middlebrooks arrival in Boston, Youkilis moved on to Chicago on June 24th and since then is hitting .308 (12-for-39) with two homers and 10 RBIs. Youkilis hit his second homer as a member of Robin Ventura’s squad Thursday in Chicago, the hit turning out to be a game winner to help the White Sox to a sweep of the Texas Rangers. He also had a walk-off single in the 10th to win that game.

CRAWFORD HEARING IT FROM THE FANS

Carl Crawford’s return to the majors is taking some time, too much for some of the fans who took in his third rehab game with the Portland Sea Dogs.

Crawford accused one fan after the game, who had been particularly vocal, of using a racial slur in his taunts to the outfielder who is coming back from a off-season wrist surgery.

“He was the only one I had a problem with,” Crawford told ESPN Boston of that one fan. “People in Boston don’t even do that. So I don’t know what that was about. It’s not that bad in Boston, like that.”

Crawford says he can understand people being unhappy with his situation. Having signed a $142-million contract and not having produced at that level is something Crawford wants to remedy as well.

“I can understand why people can be upset about me signing a contract and me having the kind of year I had,” Crawford said. “I understand, you know? They love their team. They want you to produce when you sign a contract like that. I can’t be mad at them. All I can do is get ready to play this year and try to produce.”

In his one and only season so far with Boston, Crawford hit .255 with 11 homers and 56 RBIs. He has yet to play for the Red Sox this season.

SETBACK FOR JOYCE

Rehab setbacks are nothing new to the Tampa Bay Rays, so there’s no panic with word that Matt Joyce has suffered a bit of a setback in his.

Joyce, who was rehabbing an oblique strain that started out as some tightness in his back, had to shut his rehab down after experiencing a different kind of back pain on Thursday.

Joyce, who the Rays opted for over Johnny Damon this past off-season, was expected to re-join the team this weekend. That will not happen now.

The hope is it’s just a minor setback.

Earlier this year the Rays slugging third baseman Evan Longoria was two days into re-habbing a pulled hamstring and had to shut his rehab down after feeling more soreness.

That was in mid June and it has been in the past week that Longoria has returned to actual baseball-type activities.

While there is no timetable for his return, Longoria said he feels better now than at any point in the rehab process.

THE AMAZING CANO

Robinson Cano’s early season struggles are a distant memory.

Slow out of the gate, the Yankees infielder has picked up the pace dramatically to the point where he could threaten the career mark for home runs by a second baseman in a season.

Through 81 games, Cano has 20 homers putting him on pace for 40 for the year. The last second baseman to hit 40 homers in a year was the Cubs’ Ryne Sandberg who did it in 1990.

Cano, who had just one home run in April, seven in May and then busted out for 11 in June, will have to pick up the pace just a little to threaten Davey Johnson’s career second base mark of 43.

Johnson did that for the Atlanta Braves in 1973.

The all-star break might not be the best thing for Cano. Not only will he be defending his home run hitting contest title, a competition that can get a hitter out of his rhythm in a hurry and historically has, but it will break up a run that has seen Cano homer in nine of his past 17 games.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi knows exactly the kind of run Cano has been on.

“(Cano is) a force,” Girardi said recently. “It would be hard to say where we would be without him. He’s a great hitter — not a good hitter, a great hitter.’’

And if he keeps up his pace he could become the greatest home run hitting second baseman of all time.

BARD REGRESSING

Daniel Bard was sent back to the minors to get himself right.

But at the moment, the Red Sox pitcher is further than ever from being right.

A solid set-up man for Jonathan Papelbon in Boston last season, it seemed only fitting that he would step into the closer’s role once Papelbon fled to Philadelphia via free agency.

But the Red Sox had other plans and spent spring training stretching him out to be a starter. Even when Andrew Bailey, the free agent brought in to fill Papelbon’s shoes went down with injury, the Red Sox refused to alter its plans for Bard.

Bard struggled as a starter and eventually the Red Sox sent him back to the minors. Now it’s to the point where Bard takes a step back every time he takes the mound.

Thursday in Pawtucket where he’s back to pitching in relief, Bard came into the game with runners on second and third and none out.

He faced four batters hitting the first and third guys with a pitch and giving up a two-run double and run-scoring single to the second and fourth.

His ERA since he went down to Pawtucket is 8.78 over 13 1/3 innings.


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