Six weeks back, I stood in the Pirates clubhouse, talking with second baseman and local product Neil Walker about a popular topic in the Pittsburgh area -- the .500 mark, which the Buccos famously had not hurdled in 18 years -- when Walker changed the course of the conversation and started talking about the playoffs. He said the Pirates were less interested in the incremental advancement that would be a winning record and more interested in winning their division outright.
Playoffs? Where was Jim Mora when you needed him? "People are going to read that," Walker said, "and laugh at us." Give it another six weeks, and people may well be laughing again. But for now, it's quite clear that what's happening at PNC Park is no laughing matter. In a congested NL Central division with little clarity (aside from the fact that the Astros and Cubs are non-factors), they are entering their season's final 66 games with a legitimate opportunity to do what no Pirates team has done since 1992 -- back before this division even existed, before Barry Bonds was a giant Giant and before Boyz II Men (who had a No. 1 hit with "End of the Road") were, well, men. Suddenly the talk of the baseball world, the Buccos are 51-45, good enough to put them neck-and-neck with the Brewers and Cardinals at the top of the NL Central entering this weekend's intriguing three-game set with St. Louis. The Central, stunningly, can be theirs. To some degree, in fact, it's already been theirs. Clint Hurdle's club is 10-14 against teams from the East, 9-10 against teams from the West and went 8-7 in Interleague Play. But the Pirates have taken care of business when it matters most, going 23-14 within their own division, primarily by beating up on the Cubs and Astros to the tune of a 15-6 mark. Of the Bucs' remaining 66 games, 42 are against Central opponents, so it would behoove them to keep that trend ticking. But let's take a step back and ask ourselves a question that is surely on the minds of general manager Neal Huntington and company as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches: How seriously should we take this club, even at this late juncture? It's fair to ask, not just because the Pirates have arrived on the contention scene at least a year ahead of even the most optimistic schedule, but because the way they've done it has involved some semblance of smoke with a side of mirrors. Andrew McCutchen is the only qualifier with an OPS over .800, and he and Neil Walker are the only Bucs with more than 35 RBIs. Chris Snyder, Ryan Doumit and Jose Tabata are all hurt, and Pedro Alvarez, a surprising non-factor after last year's September surge, is in Triple-A, for now. Sure, the speedy Alex Presley has provided a big boost since his arrival in late June (and if you predicted his .933 OPS, through 19 games, be sure to pick up your fortune teller's certificate on the way out), but this is still a lineup with no shortage of holes. We like to point to the 2010 Giants as an example that, if you have a robust rotation, you can field a legitimate championship contender without an overpowering offense. But even that Giants team averaged nearly half a run per game more than these Pirates, who average 3.89 runs, are contributing to the scoreboard. So, yeah, on some level, it's entirely reasonable to be suspicious of such a surprise. At the risk of offending those who have jumped on the Buccos bandwagon, Baseball Prospectus' playoff-odds report gives the Pirates just a 5.2 percent chance of winning the division. And to rub salt in the wound, the simulation has them finishing a game below .500. Ouch. But this is where we must counter with an obvious interjection: No simulation of prognostication in late March had the Pirates at the forefront of the Central standings at any point, let alone late July, so this is clearly a team accustomed to overcoming the odds. Furthermore, this is a team with the fifth-best ERA (3.34) in the NL and, more to the point, a staff ERA that is more than a half-run better than its next-closest division competitor, the Cardinals. When you have that kind of pitching prowess for this length of time, your success is not a fluke, no matter how unpredictable it might have been. Whether the Pirates can keep it up is in the hands of Paul Maholm (6-9, 3.06 ERA), Kevin Correia (11-7, 4.04), Charlie Morton (8-5, 3.62), James McDonald (6-4, 4.15) and Jeff Karstens (8-4, 2.34). And should any of them taper off, the Pirates might have the sore-shouldered Ross Ohlendorf, who began a Minor League rehab assignment last week, available for the stretch run. Or former first-round pick Brad Lincoln, who has a 3.81 ERA, 86 strikeouts and 19 walks in 101 2/3 innings at Triple-A Indianapolis, could be an option. The bigger concern is the bullpen, which has lacked a reliable setup option for closer Joel Hanrahan. But in addition to pulling veteran Jason Grilli off the scrap heap, the Pirates are expected to be among the many clubs in aggressive pursuit of the many options on the trade market. What works in the Pittsburgh pitchers' favor is a vastly improved defensive effort. The Pirates' regulars have taken to the notion that if you're not hitting the ball with authority, you darn well better catch it. Baseball Prospectus ranks them ninth in the Majors in defensive efficiency a year after finishing dead last. They averaged .78 errors per game last season, and this year that number is down to .71. Beyond the statistical is the psychological. It might be a cliché and it might mentioned ad nauseam, but it's simply true that the attitude in that Pittsburgh clubhouse -- ushered in by the always upbeat Hurdle -- is worlds away from what it was in losing seasons past. That attitude revealed itself when Walker started talking playoffs weeks back, and it shows itself each time you glance at the NL Central standings. Maybe this is all a mirage and the Pirates will fade, this brief stint in the spotlight serving as an organizational step forward, a harbinger of more significant steps to come. If that is, indeed, their fate, then they've still managed to come a long way in 2011. But in the meantime, with significant series being played in PNC Park for the first time in the beautiful ballpark's not-so-beautiful history, you are hereby encouraged to take the Pirates seriously. Because as they've demonstrated, this contention stuff is no joke.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.