Surprise! The Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Nats are in first – for now

At the MLB All-Star break, Pittsburgh and Washington have shed their losing images in a 2012 season marked by an uncommon number of brilliant pitching performances. Can the Pirates and Nats keep it up?

Dave Kaup/Reuters
National League All-Star Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals pitches to the American League All-Star team during the fourth inning in Major League Baseball's All-Star Game in Kansas City, Missouri, July 10.
Gene J. Puskar/AP
Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen watches his second two-run home run of the game leave the park during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants in Pittsburgh on July 8. The Pirates won 13-2.

Quick. Look before it’s too late. The Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that has floundered through 19 straight losing seasons, is in first place in baseball’s National League Central division.

The last time they made the playoffs, in 1992, a much thinner Barry Bonds was the team’s top star. That was also the last time the Pirates had a winning record at the All-Star break – until a year ago, when they fizzled out after a surprising first-half start.

Now, as the second half of the current season begins, Pittsburgh fans will hold their breath, hoping that MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen (.362 batting average and 18 home runs) can remain hot.

On the other side of Pennsylvania, the Phillies have been perhaps the season’s biggest disappointment. After five straight seasons as champions of the National League East, Philadelphia is scraping bottom, 14 games behind the division-leading Washington Nationals. The cellar dwellers have already lost 50 games after losing only 60 all last season.

The Phillies’ demise is partly a factor of injuries (all-stars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley and Roy Halladay have missed most of the season), but that can’t easily explain why it’s so badly underachieving.

At this point, the Washington Nationals own the largest lead of any first-place National League team (four games). The Pirates are only up a half game on Cincinnati, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, under new ownership, are a mere half game ahead of the San Francisco Giants.   

Since the Nationals franchise began as the Montreal Expos in 1969, it is one of only three teams that have never been to the World Series (Houston and Seattle being the others). Now, however, it’s hardly far-fetched to imagine Washington making it to the Fall Classic, if not this year, then sometime soon. After all, the Nats own the best winning percentage (.590) in the National League. 

The team has two of the best young pitchers in baseball in Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, who’ve registered a combined 21 wins so far. Garnering even more attention is rookie outfielder Bryce Harper, who, at 19, became the youngest position player (nonpitcher) in All-Star Game history when named to Tuesday night’s showcase midseason event in Kansas City, won by the National League, 8-0.

Hot on their heels

While the Pirates and Nats are the talk of the National League, the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals have quietly kept themselves in contention and sit only 2-1/2 games behind Pittsburgh in third place in the NL Central. The team’s winning pedigree has withstood the retirement of longtime manager Tony LaRussa and the departure of Albert Pujols, who is often described as the game’s best hitter, to the Los Angeles Angels.

After getting off to a very slow start, Pujols has found his hitting groove, but it is Angels rookie Mike Trout who is really turning heads with his league-leading .341 average. He’s helped the Angels stay within four games of the AL West-leading Texas Rangers, whose .605 winning pace is the second best in the majors behind the Yankees’ .612.  In the AL Central, the Chicago White Sox lead Cleveland.

For some of the top highlights of the first half of the 2012 season, look to the pitcher's mound. Fans have seen perfect games by Phil Humber of the White Sox and San Francisco’s Matt Cain.

There have also been an incredible five no-hitters, including one by Johan Santana of the New York Mets – the franchise’s first after 8,019 games. Fellow Mets hurler R.A. Dickey, a knuckleballer, nearly turned in a pair of no-hitters, but his back-to-back one-hitters were the first since Toronto’s Dave Stieb managed the feat in 1988.

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