Last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates flirted with contention before fading badly, again.
This season, they are legitimate threats. Don't expect them to simply move out of the Cardinals' way in the National League Central or the wild card race.
The Pirates have the likely NL MVP in Andrew McCutchen. They have the pitching to hang around. Their starting rotation features a surprise “stopper” in A.J. Burnett.
In the last 17 games started by Burnett (14-3, 3.19 earned-run average overall), the Pirates have won 16 times. He beat the streaking Reds 6-2 Sunday, helping Pittsburgh move back within 4½ games of division-leading Cincinnati.
“He’s a great pitcher,” Reds third baseman Todd Frazier told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “You’ve seen the whole year he’s been doing what he has to do. He kept us off balance, he was throwing strikes and hitting his spots. He was hitting the black all day inside and out, with his offspeed and his fastball.”
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has been down this trail before. He knows how to guide a team lacking postseason credentials into the playoff bracket.
“We left Chicago, we're 16 games over .500, pretty good ballclub,” Hurdle told reporters after the game. “Seventy-two-hours later, we're getting looked at cross-eyed, we might be falling apart.
"We're just going to stay steady, we're going to hold fast, we're going to show up and we're going to play. That's what we did.”
The Pirates play their next 11 games at home, giving them a timely opportunity to validate their standing.
“There's no pressing here,” second baseman Neil Walker told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “There was a sense of urgency, but there wasn't a sense of pressing too hard. That's a testament to this team in terms of the veteran leadership we have and also the young guys not trying to do more than they're capable of.”
MYSTERIES OF THE UNIVERSE
Questions to ponder while wondering if the Cardinals are finally on a roll:
Does Roy Oswalt have any second thoughts about signing with the Rangers? Wouldn't the Cardinals have been more of a pitcher-friendly opportunity?
QUIPS ‘R US
Here is what some of America’s leading sports pundits have been writing:
Michael Wilbon, ESPN.com: “It's the greatest show on Earth now, wherever he goes. There's nothing else like it in sports, the rumors, the entourage, the celebrating, the foolishness, the drama and, above all of it, the athletic brilliance. There's nothing and no one like the irresistible Usain Bolt, not now and maybe not ever. Bolt turned the London Olympics upside down Sunday night, sent otherwise reserved folks skipping deliriously from the Olympic Stadium into the streets. At the center of the greatest footrace the world has ever seen was Bolt, still the fastest man on Earth, who ran the 100-meter final in an Olympic-record 9.63. Anyone could see it was the fastest race in history because that much is fact. Seven of the eight men ran the 100 in less than 10 seconds, which had never happened. Only Asafa Powell, who pulled up early with an injury, couldn't get under 10 seconds. But what made it not just the fastest race but the yummiest event of the Olympics was seeing the runners get down in the blocks next to each other, like gleaming Ferraris parked side by side before roaring off.”
Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports: “Bolt thought about turning and celebrating before he crossed the line, like he did in Beijing, humbling his challengers. He decided against it. Then he thought about beating his 9.58 world record. ‘It was too late,’ he admitted. And, really, that's the difference between Usain Bolt and the others, between the fastest people on Earth and a legend you can't invent. All these ultra-talented, peak-performance star sprinters churned with all their might and all their will and all their training, and Usain Bolt was trying to decide which dramatic way he wanted to drive the stake through their hearts. Taunt them a little bit? Set a world record? Settle for only beating his own Olympic mark, grabbing a flag, and saving a bit of energy for the 200-meter event still to come?”
Michael Farber, SI.com: “If Phelps were a country, his 18 gold medals would put him 36th on the all-time summer Olympic tables. He would be tied with Austria and Ethiopia, up one on Argentina. Rewrite late 20th century history, reunite the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and Phelpslandia still has a one gold-medal advantage. Maybe Phelps can note this in the journal he has been keeping throughout this year. He hasn't written much in London, although during his travels in the coming weeks, he vows to put pen to paper. When asked how he might sum up the past week, Phelps replied, ‘I can sum it up in a couple of words. I did it.’”
David Whitley, FanHouse, on Serena Williams: “Her gold-medal performance was like watching Jesse Owens lap the field or Dick Fosbury flop over a 10-foot Russian. Maria Sharapova actually was 6-foot-2 when Saturday’s match began. Sixty-two dizzying minutes later, she was all but lost in the Centre Court grass. 6-0, 6-1. When did Mike Krzyzewski start coaching the U.S. tennis team?”
Jen Floyd Engel, FoxSports.com: “I think I finally have figured out the Brits. They relish seeing the pint glass as not simply half empty, but also cracked and leaking. When Brits ask me what I think of these Olympics and I say I love them, they seem genuinely surprised. Isn’t security bad? Traffic is awful, right? And did I understand the opening ceremony? It is not that they are not patriotic. They are, impressively so. They just start from a really dark place and have to be cajoled into seeing the positive. This may be weather-related. It is damn dreary here for the middle of summer, and there is genius in low expectations. Anything aside from abject failure is an improvement.”
“The trials woke me up. Yohan (Blake) gave me a wakeup call. He knocked on my door and said, 'Usain, wake up! This is an Olympic year.'”
— Bolt, to reporters after his golden sprint performance.