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In closely fought NL Central, don't count out injury-wracked Pirates

In closely fought NL Central, don't count out injury-wracked Pirates Photo:

Clint Hurdle stood in the middle of a clubhouse that was beginning to resemble a medical tent and recited a quote from Lou Holtz. "Don’t tell people your problems," the Pirates' manager told his hobbling, injury-ravaged team on Tuesday before a game in Detroit. "Eighty percent of them don’t care, and the other 20 percent are happy you have them."

Pittsburgh’s old general is right: No one wants to hear the Pirates bellyache about their bad injury luck, especially not in a division that’s lost more star power to injuries this summer than any other division. In Cincinnati, Joey Votto has been sidelined since July 8, Brandon Phillips has been out since July 10, and now $100 million man Homer Bailey is headed to the disabled list. The Cardinals have lost their most valuable player, Yadier Molina, as well as Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia.

Hurdle and the Pirates, meanwhile, have been without MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, All-Star Neil Walker, and their most talented pitcher, Gerrit Cole. Staying relatively healthy has been the key to the Brewers, who raced out to a 20-7 start but have essentially been a .500 team since, leading the division for most of the summer.

"This is going to be survival of the fittest," Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington said Thursday. "Every team in the division has lost some key personnel for an extended period of time, and right now, we're in the middle of it. It’s going to test organizational depth. It’s going to test manager and staff creativity. The team that battles through it the best will be the one standing at the end. And it should be a great race."

​The Dodgers are cruising in the National League West. The Nationals are pulling away from the stumbling, bumbling Braves in the East. The race in the Central, however, with the top three teams in the division separated by just 2 1/2 games (and the Reds still just 6 1/2 games out of first), feels like it’s only just begun. The Brewers have been in first for all but four days this season, and with the most potent lineup and the best run differential (+35) in the division, they are clearly for real. Everyone expects the Cardinals to make a run; their offense, which led the NL is scoring, is next-to-last this season but should be better once Molina returns, perhaps in early September, and once Oscar Taveras starts hitting.

But it's the Pirates who loom as potentially the most dangerous team in the division. The biggest reason to like their chances down the stretch is that they should soon be at full strength, just in time for a critical run starting Aug. 22, when they begin 12 straight games against the Brewers, Cardinals, and Reds.

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Hurdle was last year’s NL manager of the year after leading Pittsburgh to its first playoff berth in 21 years, but he has done an even better job this year. Last year’s club included the NL MVP (McCutchen) and the NL’s home run co-champ (Pedro Alvarez) in the lineup, the Comeback Player of the Year (Francisco Liriano) and a rookie phenom (Cole) in the rotation, and the second-best bullpen in the league, anchored by an All-Star closer (Jason Grilli).

This year, he hasn't had things as easy. Eight players from this year’s 25-man Opening Day roster are inactive or off this year’s team: Grilli and Bryan Morris were traded, Wandy Rodriguez and Travis Ishikawa were released, Jose Tabata and Tony Sanchez are in the minors, and Cole and Clint Barmes are on the DL. Liriano was out a month with a strained oblique, Russell Martin missed three weeks with a hamstring injury, and now Walker has been sidelined after an emergency appendectomy and a bad lower back. McCutchen is on the DL with a rib injury.

​And yet the Pirates have stayed in the race, just 2 1/2 games back entering the weekend, and are poised for a big run here in the season’s final six weeks of the season. The Pirates are hopeful that McCutchen can return next week when he’s eligible to come off the DL; Walker could return even sooner, perhaps on Friday; Cole, who was dominant in a rehab start Sunday at Triple-A Indianapolis, will make another rehab start before potentially returning to the rotation after that. On Thursday, the Pirates acquired John Axford to help the bullpen. There are also some potential reinforcements in the minors, including Andrew Lambo, who is hitting .315/.398/.529 at Triple-A Indianapolis and could be Pittsburgh’s answer at first base.

"It’s really encouraging to think about where we can go from here," Huntington said. "With Cole, Walker and McCutchen potentially on their way back, we feel pretty good. Every team in the division has been dealing with significant injuries. But for us, it’s been two months since we probably have been at full strength."

The NL races may be over on the two coasts, but with a three-team dogfight still raging in the most competitive division in baseball, get ready for an epic finish in the Central.

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