The Pittsburgh Pirates are baseball's hottest team, sweeping the Royals over the weekend to extend their winning streak to four games and to improve their record over the last two and a half weeks to 12-3, with a 4-2 mark in two series against Cincinnati. With the Reds' loss Sunday night, the Pirates moved into a first-place tie in the NL Central, the first time they've occupied any part of the top spot this season.
It's reminiscent of a similar surge Pittsburgh went on in the middle of last summer, when a 16-7 stretch propelled the Pirates into first place (by a half-game) last July 19. That year didn't end well -- a 21-46 record the rest of the way -- and it's hard to tell if this season's success will be any more sustainable.
The pitching has been very good all season -- the staff's 3.25 ERA ranks third in the NL -- and was buoyed by strong weekend starts from Erik Bedard (7 IP, 2 ER) on Friday and A.J Burnett (7 1/3 IP, 2 ER) on Sunday, with the bullpen contributing 8 2/3 scoreless innings and three saves against Kansas City.
The offense, however, may be an issue. The Pirates have only one player, centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, whose OPS is better than league average. McCutchen is way over that league average, in fact, with a .951 mark that ranks seventh in the NL. He's batting .325 with a .388 on-base percentage, .563 slugging percentage, 11 home runs, 36 RBIs, 32 runs, 11 stolen bases, 21 walks; each of those numbers leads the team while his 10 doubles are tied for the lead. But that might be too much dependence on one player.
McCutchen drove in all three Pittsburgh runs in its win on Sunday, but the club will need more contributions up and down the lineup in order to hang tough in the NL Central. During the 15-game hot streak, second baseman Neil Walker (.340 average, .882 OPS), catcher Rod Barajas (.343 average, .909 OPS) and first baseman/right fielder Garrett Jones (.300 average, 3 HRs) have shown signs that their bats may be waking up -- offensive production the Pirates sorely need.
Pittsburgh's next test will be whether they can win outside the division. Of the last 15 games, 12 have been against NL Central opponents, with the only exception being the three games against the AL Central's last-place Royals. The Pirates' next 19 games come against the Orioles, Indians, Twins, Tigers, Phillies and Cardinals.
Arizona's Ryan Roberts hit a three-run walk-off homer to beat Oakland 9-8 in the bottom of the ninth on Friday night. Beyond the daily heroics, Roberts' homer capped the highest scoring game of the day in which the 2012 season overtook 2011 in offense.
Runs have been on an annual decline every year since 2006's 4.858 runs per team per game, down to 4.283 in 2011. The first two months of this season were a tiny bit lower (4.276) until Friday -- a trend that continued through the rest of the weekend.
Teams scored an average of 4.800 runs per game during this interleague weekend, driving up the season average to 4.302. That's only a small increase over 2011 but, if the margin were to hold, it would end the downward trend of the past six seasons.
The Senior Circuit hung tough against its junior partner this weekend, but the AL eked out a close victory, winning 22 games and losing 20. The NL nearly bucked recent history: the AL has an eight-year winning streak and won the first weekend 24-18 back in mid-May.
Scheduling happenstance hurt the NL the first time around, as the league lacked a pair of its top clubs. With 14 teams in the AL and 16 in the NL, there's one NL vs. NL game on each day of interleague play. Three weeks ago that intra-NL series included two of the league's hottest teams at the time (Cardinals and Dodgers) while this time that lone series pitted the Brewers and Padres. The Brewers are four games under .500; the Padres have the league's worst record.
The game's two most impressive divisions thus far, the AL East and NL East, were perfectly paired up against each other for five three-game series this weekend, with three matchups in AL ballparks (Mets at Yankees, Phillies at Orioles and Nationals at Red Sox) and two in NL parks (Blue Jays at Braves and Rays at Marlins).
After two days of head-to-head competition, the AL and NL were deadlocked 5-5, and on Sunday three of the five games were tied in the ninth inning. The AL prevailed by eventually winning four of the final five games to take the 9-6 weekend victory, but of the 15 games, seven ended with a save and four with a walkoff, meaning only four games were decided by four or more runs.
The weekend run differential was +24 in favor of the AL, which won the only three blowouts of the weekend -- the Yankees beat the Mets 9-1 on Friday; the Rays routed the Marlins 13-4 on Saturday; and the Blue Jays beat up on the Braves 12-4 on Sunday. (Those three games alone were a +25.)
The NL batting average leaders include two catchers among the top five with averages betters than .330: the Phillies' Carlos Ruiz is in fourth place at .347 and the Cardinals' Yadier Molina is in fifth at .330. Not only is this unusual but it also could be unprecedented for the past 75 years.
If Ruiz and Molina keep up their pace, they will be the first pair of catchers to hit better than .330 for a full season since Bill Dickey, Gabby Hartnett and Ernie Lombardi all did so in 1937. Though catching can wear players down during the long season, over their careers both Molina and Ruiz have hit at least 16 points higher in the season's second half.
The bigger concern in their pursuit of such high averages is a simple regression to the mean. Ruiz did bat .302 in 2010, but his career average entering this season was .265; Molina has batted over .300 twice -- .304 in 2008 and .305 last year -- but his pre-2012 career average was only .274.