The 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates are having their best season in 20 years. At 53-40, and a 1/2 game out of first place in the National League Central Division, things are setting up for an exciting final two months of the season.
On offense, led by Andrew McCutchen, whose triple crown numbers clearly make him the favorite for National League MVP, the team led the Majors in runs scored in June, and they're well on their way to doing it again in July. Also, the Pirates are on pace to hit the most home runs in team history. These are quite surprising developments, considering just how pedestrian the lineup looked in April and May.
As for the starting pitchers, well they've been a little more consistent throughout the season and certainly a source of strength for the most part. Led by the dynamic duo of James McDonald and A.J. Burnett--a combined 21-6--the Pirates boast one of the most dependable starting staffs in all of baseball. However, in contrast to the offense, the starting pitchers have come back down to earth a little in recent weeks.
In fact, just before the All-Star break, I heard it said that the Pirates starters had pitched the 2nd fewest innings in baseball, ahead of only the Colorado Rockies.
And if the staff's performance since the break is any indication, chances are, that stat hasn't changed much.
In the eight games since the All-Star break, the Pirates' starters have averaged roughly six innings a game. That's not horrible by any stretch, but it does require a lot from your bullpen.
Fortunately for the Pirates, they have arguably the best relief staff in baseball. During the team's current four-game winning streak, the bullpen has pitched 12 scoreless innings, including four impressive innings on Wednesday afternoon after McDonald's second consecutive shaky outing. Leading 9-6 after five innings at Coors Field, one of the most difficult places to pitch, Brad Lincoln, Jason Grilli, Tony Watson and Joel Hanrahan combined to slam the door on the Rockies and preserve JMac's 10th win.
Similar scenarios have unfolded time and time again this season. What a great equalizer a dominant bullpen can be for a team like the Pirates, who may not be as talented as the teams they are competing against for a postseason berth.
When a team has a dominant closer, the strategy by opposing hitters and managers is to make sure they're ahead after the 8th inning. Otherwise, it's almost a lost cause.
Well, an opponent's strategy for the 2012 Pirates may have to be modified. If they're behind after five innings, it's almost a lost cause.
So while the hitters and starting staff have been a pleasure to behold, make no mistake, the bullpen is the glue holding this thing together.