Pirates second baseman Neil Walker is welcomed at home plate by first baseman… (Pat Sullivan / Associated…)
The Pittsburgh Pirates entered the season's second half four games over .500 and just a game off the lead in the tight National League Central. It's their best record at the break since 1992, which, not coincidentally, is the last time the Pirates finished with a winning record.
"We're just playing good baseball. That's it," All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen says. "We're going out every day and playing a hard nine innings."
First-year Manager Clint Hurdle also deserves credit for changing the culture in Pittsburgh, blending a team of young stars (McCutchen is 24 and Neil Walker is 25) and castoffs (former Angel Brandon Wood and former Dodger Xavier Paul) into a contender that has gone 25-17 since May 27.
"Most people don't see it, but the changes are just clicking," McCutchen says. "We need a big hit, we get a big hit. Our pitching has been doing a phenomenal job. Pitching and defense is what wins games and we've been having that and we've been winning some games."
Whether the Pirates have enough to hang with the reinforced Milwaukee Brewers and star-studded St. Louis Cardinals remains to be seen, but they'll have to rely on pitching to have a chance. Pittsburgh doesn't have a .300 hitter and just one Pirate has more than nine home runs. But the Pirates have a lower earned-run average and a far better bullpen than their two division rivals.
The heart of Texas
Texas Manager Ron Washington says that if his team makes it back to the World Series it will be on the strength of its pitching. But the Rangers' hitters are no slouches either.
Texas leads the majors in virtually every significant offensive category in July including runs, averaging 71/2 a game. Adrian Beltre has done a lot of that damage, slugging .921 with five homers and a big-league-best 14 runs batted in this month. That's helped Texas keep pace with the surging Angels in the tight American League West.
The Angels, by the way, have the majors' best ERA in July at 2.00.
Alex Rodriguez's decision to undergo knee surgery last week virtually guarantees the Yankee slugger will finish the year with the lowest single-season home run total of his career. And it also slows Rodriguez's pursuit of the all-time home run record, which once seemed his for the taking.
Rodriguez, who last homered June 11, has 13 for the season leaving him 136 shy of Barry Bonds' record. And he'll be 36 when he returns from his fourth stint on the disabled list in as many seasons. Given the injuries and his declining production, A-Rod figures to need at least five more seasons to approach the record. He'll be in his 23rd big league season then.
Stat watch('Carmageddon' edition)
• Of the four big league markets with two teams, the Dodgers and Angels are the farthest apart, separated by 30 miles of freeway. The Yankees and Mets and White Sox and Cubs are less than 10 miles apart.
• This weekend is the only one this season in which the Dodgers and Angels are both on the road.
• The Angels have lost the season interleague series with their northern neighbors once since 1999.
— Kevin Baxter