Here is something people don't say often, "The Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place in the National League Central division."
For that matter, you don't often hear people talking about the Pirates much at all this late in the season, unless it's about what players they will be getting rid of at the trade deadline.
But 2012 has brought a new element to Major League Baseball in Pittsburgh - a postseason atmosphere. Having passed the Cincinnati Reds atop the NL Central standings Wednesday, the Buccos are giving the Pittsburgh fan base a reason to believe.
Understandably, some people may be a little skeptical. After all, we saw this same type of thing from the Bucs last year. They were 53-47 and tied for first place as late as July 26, when they suffered a 19-inning setback to the Braves, which led to a 19-43 skid the rest of the season, and ultimately a 72-90 record and fourth place finish in the division. It was the franchise's 19th consecutive losing season.
Things appear to be different with the club this year. After a 6-4 triumph over the Astros Wednesday to improve to 45-36 on the year, the Pirates lined up onto the infield to shake hands and give high-fives, and you could just tell this was a team on a mission. Players had looks in their eyes, as if winning was business as usual. It looked more like a championship squad than a once storied team that had fallen from the top.
There are real reasons to believe in what's going on Pittsburgh right now.
For one thing, the team has a legitimate MVP candidate playing everyday in center field. Andrew McCutchen is playing at an ultra-high level, batting a major league leading .360 with 16 homers and 54 runs batted in, in addition to playing gold glove defense.
The Pirates have also gotten solid contributions from second baseman Neil Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, and right fielder/first baseman Garrett Jones. Recently acquired utility player Drew Sutton has been inserted into the lead off spot and done a fine job for Clint Hurdle's ball club.
Perhaps the biggest strength for the Pirates has been the guys on the mound. The Pittsburgh pitching staff has posted the sixth best earned run average in the major leagues, led by young ace James McDonald. McDonald has an 8-3 record on the year with 2.45 ERA. In 103 innings pitched, he has struck out 90 batters, compared to just 31 walks.
A.J. Burnett, winner of eight straight decisions, has done well since recovering from an injury in spring training.
In the bullpen, Jason Grilli, Jared Hughes, closer Joel Hanrahan, Juan Cruz and Doug Slaten all have ERAs under 3.00. Hanrahan, selected to the All-Star team, has 21 saves in 24 opportunities.
Defensively the Pirates are much improved. In 2010, Pittsburgh ranked last in the National League in fielding percentage, and 11th in 2011. This year, they have put together a solid .984 fielding percentage, good for eighth in the NL.
Having said all that, the season does not end at the beginning of July. As Pirates' fans learned last year, it is not easy maintaining a winning record and staying in playoff contention over the duration of an entire season.
But as long as the team is racking up the Ws, the fans in Pittsburgh will surely enjoy the ride.
Jordan Holland is a Marietta Times sports writer, and can be reached at 376-5449 or at firstname.lastname@example.org