By Joe Lemire
July 21, 2011

The Pirates took over first place in the National League Central on Friday (by a few percentage points) and then claimed it outright for two days (by a half-game) on Monday and Tuesday. Such small margins wouldn't merit much attention in this space if it were any other team, but these are the Pirates, who haven't had a winning season since 1992 and haven't led their division this late in the season since that year either.

That '92 season was also the last time -- before this year -- Pittsburgh had strong starting pitching. The Pirates right now rank eighth in the majors in starting pitching ERA (3.48). All five men have a 4.15 mark or lower, and in the cases of Jeff Karstens (2.28) and Paul Maholm (3.06), it's much lower.

In their 18 straight losing seasons the Pirates' starters never had an ERA better than 4.16. Admittedly, much of that stretch came during the so-called Steroid Era, when offensive numbers were inflated, but three of the five seasons in which the rotation's ERA was over 5.00 came as offense was dying down in 2007, 2008 and 2010; the latter was known as the Year of the Pitcher, yet the Pirates had an abominable 5.28 ERA.

Suddenly, the Pirates have relevance. Twice in the next three weeks will they be on national television for the first time in five years. And while Pittsburgh's starting staff seems set, the club with the 28th-ranked $45 million major-league payroll is investigating the possibility of making a trade for a pricey rental to get offensive help at the deadline.

The Pirates' recent streak began on June 21, the solstice. Since their game that day they are 16-8 and have moved from fourth place to first. With such baggage and such opportunity, the Pirates are growing into 2011's Boys of Summer.

NOTE: All stats are updated through Wednesday, July 20.

MLB Power Rankings
1 Texas Rangers
Last Week: 5
Sure, the Rangers were mostly beating up on downtrodden Baltimore, Oakland and Seattle, but no matter the opponents, winning 12 straight games is no easy task, which is why Texas became the first team to do it in five seasons. The Rangers pitched five team shutouts (three consecutively) and twice held opponents to one run. Now they must deal with some inexplicable recent history: Three of the last four teams with a 12-game winning record failed to make the playoffs. Only the 2004 Astros reached the postseason while the '06 Red Sox, '04 Devil Rays and '03 Diamondbacks all missed.
2 Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 1
The Phillies' best pitcher over the past month has been . . . Vance Worley? The bespectacled 23-year-old has not allowed more than one run in any of his last six starts dating back to June 18 and has surrendered a total of three runs in 38 1/3 innings over that time for a 0.94 ERA with a .163 average against. (Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels had ERAs of 2.06, 2.57 and 3.26, respectively.) Worley's ERA during this time is the best in the majors, followed by the Yankees' CC Sabathia (1.16), the Athletics' Gio Gonzalez (1.36), the Tigers' Justin Verlander (1.39) and the Marlins' Javier Vazquez (1.39).
3 Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 2
Dustin Pedroia has so often likened his offense to a Laser Show that the phrase stuck as a nickname, though it seems he's inherited a new one, Muddy Chicken, because his teammates think it sounds awesome. He got plenty dirty while making two remarkable diving stops in Boston's 16-inning win Sunday, in which he also had three hits and the game-winning RBI. Pedroia has an 18-game hitting streak and enjoyed a recent stretch with multiple hits in seven of eight games. He has particularly crushed lefties; this season he leads all major leaguers in hits (41) against lefties, as well as average (.398), OBP (.519) and times on base (67, which is 14 more than anyone else).
4 New York Yankees
Last Week: 4
Rafael Soriano, the Yankees $35 million set-up man, has begun his minor league rehab assignment, but when he returns to New York , he ought to be told to find a new home in the seventh inning, no matter what his contract says. David Robertson, who is making $460,450 this year, has earned that job in Soriano's absence. He has 19 holds, a 1.17 ERA and a 14.32 K/9 rate, all of which rank second among AL relievers with 25 or more innings. Robertson, who made the AL All-Star team, walks more people than ideal (5.4 BB/9) but has otherwise proven to be the best bridge to Mariano Rivera.
5 San Francisco Giants
Last Week: 6
The Giants will spend their Monday off day on the East Coast visiting President Obama during the World Series winner's customary visit to the White House before beginning an NLCS rematch in Philadelphia on Tuesday. Of Philadelphia's three healthy aces, only Cole Hamels is likely to pitch in the series (though the emerging Vance Worley will also take the hill). Including the playoffs Hamels was 0-2 in three starts against the Giants last year with a 6.35 ERA in 17 innings. San Fran also sports the majors' best record against lefthanded starters this season at 18-8.
6 Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 3
After losing in extra innings on June 18, the Braves then sported the majors' best record from June 19 through July 18, going 18-6 by scoring the second-most runs in the NL and allowing the second-fewest. In searching for correlations, here are two: June 19 was the last time Dan Uggla (.243 OBP at the time) batted second in the order, and that was also the day that Nate McLouth returned to the lineup in leftfield, rather than his prior position of center. Centerfield remained in the hands of Jordan Schafer, whose play there has been the best defensive performance by any Brave at any position this year, according to Ultimate Zone Rating.
7 Pittsburgh Pirates
Last Week: 14
Jeff Karstens earned NL Player of the Week honors for the shortened post-All-Star break week after throwing a complete-game shutout of the Astros. Karstens needed just 83 pitches to notch his eighth straight quality start and win his fifth straight decision; he has more wins in this streak than he ever had in a previous season. He entered 2011 with a 12-27 career record and 5.07 ERA but is 8-4 with a 2.34 ERA this year -- not bad for a guy who began the year in the bullpen.
8 Milwaukee Brewers
Last Week: 10
Two appearances are insubstantial for a sample size, but so far Francisco Rodriguez has taken to pitching in the eighth inning. On Saturday a fielding error behind him was all that prevented him from a 1-2-3 frame for which he picked up his first win for the Brewers; on Sunday he allowed two baserunners but struck out two in securing his first hold in front of Milwaukee closer John Axford. It was also his first hold since notching 27 in front of Angels closer Troy Percival in 2004.
9 Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 8
Casey Kotchman began the 2010 season as the Mariners' everyday first baseman but hit so poorly that he couldn't hold that position even for the historically run-starved club. He's been reinvented in 2011, however, with a .337/.396/.467 batting line has inched up an ever-fluctuating lineup; he ranks third in the AL in average. As noted by ESPN on Sunday night, Kotchman became the Rays' ninth cleanup hitter this season, which is the most of any team in the majors. In all Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon has used 79 different batting orders in its first 96 games; only one order has been used to start more than three games.
10 Los Angeles Angels
Last Week: 7
The Angels' young, homegrown players have made a key difference in their 2011 season: closer Jordan Walden, 23, has 21 saves and made the All-Star team; first baseman Mark Trumbo, 25, leads the team in home runs (18) and slugging (.483); Peter Bourjos, 24, has played outstanding defense in centerfield and, combined with his .720 OPS, ranks second in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) on the Angels; and starter Tyler Chatwood, 21, has a 3.71 ERA over 104 1/3 innings. But Bourjos is now on the disabled list, catcher Hank Conger, 23, slumped enough offensively and defensively that he was returned to Triple A and all-world prospect Mike Trout, 19, has (understandably) gotten off to a slow start, batting 4-for-27 (.148).
11 Arizona Diamondbacks
Last Week: 13
Starter Daniel Hudson threw his second career complete-game on Sunday, allowing five hits and no walks in a 4-1 win over the Dodgers; impressively, he also went 2-for-3 with three of Arizona's four RBIs while smacking his first career home run. Hudson now has 12 RBIs this season, the most by any pitcher in the majors and doubling up the Phillies' Cliff Lee and the Brewers' Shaun Marcum in second place. Interestingly, all three were predominantly AL pitchers until the past year.
12 Detroit Tigers
Last Week: 11
Despite his off-field problems, Miguel Cabrera has remained steadily brilliant with his bat. In his seven full seasons from 2004-10 he never had fewer than 177 hits or 103 RBIs and only once had fewer than 33 home runs (26 in '06). So far this season he has 104 hits, 63 RBIs, and 20 home runs, which computes to a pace of 174, 105 and 33 -- numbers on the lower spectrum of his annual production only because he's also on pace for 114 walks, which would demolish his career-high of 89. He is tied for second in the majors with 14 intentional walks.
13 St. Louis Cardinals
Last Week: 9
The Indianapolis suburb of Brownsburg has quite the collection of 24-and-under athletes: Utah Jazz basketball player (formerly of Butler) Gordon Hayward, Washington Nationals closer Drew Storen and St. Louis Cardinals reliever Lance Lynn. St. Louis selected Lynn in the supplemental first round of the 2008 draft and promoted him to the majors in June for two starts (one rocky, one good). Two weeks later Lynn returned in the bullpen and is growing into an expanded role, notching holds in consecutive appearances against the Diamondbacks and Reds and yielding only one run in 8 2/3 innings while exclusively pitching in the seventh and eighth innings in his six appearances since July 5.
14 Cleveland Indians
Last Week: 12
The Indians were already thinking about adding an outfielder before Sunday, and now they're likely to double their efforts after Grady Sizemore injured his right knee while rounding first base. He was placed on the DL though an MRI did not initially show structural damage. Shifting Michael Brantley to centerfield fulltime will adequately fill that position, but it'll hurt leftfield production, which already ranks No. 24 in the majors with a .643 OPS -- and it's only that good because of Brantley. The players in leftfield other than Brantley (namely, Travis Buck, Austin Kearns and Shelley Duncan) have a .590 OPS with zero home runs while playing leftfield.
15 Toronto Blue Jays
Last Week: 16
The Baseball Hall of Fame will induct pitcher Bert Blyleven, second baseman Roberto Alomar and executive Pat Gillick on Sunday, and for the latter two it will be tribute to the greatness of the 1990s Blue Jays. Before Alomar there had been four former Jays enshrined in Cooperstown but each was more of a cameo player: Paul Molitor played three seasons in Toronto, while Rickey Henderson, Phil Niekro and Dave Winfield played one season each. Alomar, however, was a Blue Jay for five years -- including both the 1992 and '93 World Series titles -- and Gillick worked there from 1977 to 1994.
16 Colorado Rockies
Last Week: 18
The Rockies are wise to at least listen to trade offers for Ubaldo Jimenez, but it is hard to overstate how important he's been to their rotation since 2008. While each member of a five-man staff is expected, in theory, to account for about 20 percent of its production, Jimenez has more than pulled his weight while making at least 33 starts per year. Through Tuesday he has accounted for 24.1 percent of its wins (52 of 216); 22.1 percent of its innings (755 1/3 of 3417); 27.4 percent of its strikeouts (692 of 2525); 42.9 percent of its shutouts (three of seven); and 44.4 percent of its complete games (eight of 18). During that time Jimenez has allowed a .230 batting average while all other Colorado starters have yielded a .276 average.
17 Minnesota Twins
Last Week: 20
Jim Thome crushed the longest home run in Target Field history on Sunday, an estimated 490 foot blast that was the 596th of his career. Thome now has seven homers so far this year and each has had a knack of coming in a big spot. Three, including Sunday's, have broken ties; three came with the team trailing by no more than four runs; and one came as important insurance with the Twins only leading by one in the seventh innings. Five of his seven home runs have come with men on base.
18 Florida Marlins
Last Week: 21
It is not possible to excise an entire month of play from the schedule, but the Marlins would be pretty formidable if they could call a mulligan on June. They went 5-23 that month but had winning records in April (16-9) and May (15-13) and are working on an 11-6 record in July. Since interim manager Jack McKeon moved Hanley Ramirez to the cleanup spot on June 21, the shortstop has gone 34-for-93 (.366) with six home runs. He has multiple hits in 10 of those games, during which Florida has a 15-10 record.
19 New York Mets
Last Week: 15
Jason Bay, who since July 6 is in a 4-for-37slump, batted sixth on Monday night even with Jose Reyes, David Wright, Ike Davis and Carlos Beltran out of the lineup; as The Wall Street Journal noted, the five batters ahead of Bay that night (Angel Pagan, Willie Harris, Daniel Murphy, Hairston and Lucas Duda) had a combined salary that wasn't half as much as Bay's $16 million this year. While Hairston has been hot, Bay (.232/.319/.324 with six homers in 71 games this season) is likely to remain in the everyday lineup with New York presumably trading Beltran soon.
20 Cincinnati Reds
Last Week: 19
The Reds' 2011 season would be very different if only they could beat the Pirates. Cincinnati is 29-22 within the NL Central this year -- those 29 wins are tied for the most any team has in its divisional games -- but is just 2-7 against Pittsburgh and has been shutout three times, including shutout losses in the first two games of their series this week. The Reds in particular haven't figured out Pittsburgh starter Charlie Morton, who is 3-0 with two complete games (one shutout) and has allowed just one run in 23 innings against them.
21 Washington Nationals
Last Week: 17
As the Nationals continue along at their roughly .500 pace, their two biggest headline grabbers are starters not on the big-league club. Chien-Ming Wang, who finished second in the 2006 AL Cy Young voting, hasn't pitched in the majors since 2009 but is finally nearing a return at the end of the month after arduous rehab. And then, of course, there's the phenom Stephen Strasburg who, 10 1/2 months after Tommy John surgery, reportedly hit 95 mph in a simulated game. If both are healthy -- and Wang re-signs -- they would join Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan and Tom Gorzelanny to form a solid 2012 rotation.
22 Chicago White Sox
Last Week: 22
The White Sox are one of only three teams with as many as three players with 100 or more base hits this year, as Paul Konerko, Alexei Ramirez and Juan Pierre have all crossed that threshold. Pierre reached the century mark with a four-hit game on Friday and has an active 12-game hitting streak. As the leadoff hitter, it's Pierre's role to reach base and score; the White Sox are 24-10 in games when he scores a run. He needs help from his teammates to score, however, as he's been caught stealing an AL-leading 11 times and his 13 extra-base hits are the fewest of all major leaguers who have played 90 or more games this season.
23 Oakland Athletics
Last Week: 26
The A's won three of four from the Angels, distributed an MC Hammer bobblehead and hosted baseball's first scheduled doubleheader since 2003. At home the A's are an impressive 26-22, but on the road they are 17-33 and recently departed on a two-city road trip to Detroit and New York where they'll face two of the league's three winningest home teams. Oakland is 6-23 over its last 29 away games and hasn't won a road series since taking two of three from the Royals May 6-8. Oakland is on pace to lose 53 road games, as noted by the San Francisco Chronicle, their most since dropping 58 in 1979.
24 Los Angeles Dodgers
Last Week: 24
Clayton Kershaw leads the majors with 167 strikeouts and leads all qualified NL starters with a 10.32 K/9 rate, which necessarily means he's working deep into counts, but the Dodgers' lefty ace, still just 23, has shown radical improvement with his control. After walking 4.6 batters per nine innings over 2008 and '09, he cut that rate to 3.6 in 2010 and now just 2.3 in 2011. In 17 of his 21 starts has he walked two or fewer batters; in those starts his ERA is just 2.18.
25 San Diego Padres
Last Week: 25
The Padres' winning percentage is more than 100 points higher when playing in the Eastern, Central or Mountain time zones (.514, 18-17) than when playing in the Pacific time zone (.397, 25-38). Unfortunately for the Padres, the city of San Diego remains along the Pacific coast, as has the club. In the month of July the Padres played their first 14 games out West, going just 4-10 and at one point had a seven-game losing streak.
26 Kansas City Royals
Last Week: 27
Growing pains are to be expected, so the recent struggles of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas should probably be dismissed as such accordingly, though they haven't been helping the Royals win many games. From June 21 through July 18 Hosmer had a .217/.263/.424 batting line with four home runs; his season slugging rate remained relatively stable, but his average and OBP both fell by more than 20 points before he rebounded with a pair of two-hit games. Moustakas, meanwhile, hasn't homered since his second big-league game on June 11 and beginning July 4 has gone just 2-for-47 (.043) with zero walks.
27 Baltimore Orioles
Last Week: 29
So apparently blue-chip shortstop prospect Manny Machado -- the No. 3 overall pick in the 2010 draft -- will make his major league debut in Sept. 2014. One can reckon that based on the three-year extension given to incumbent shortstop J.J. Hardy, which runs through the end of 2014, so it stands to reason Machado would be a September call-up prior to Hardy's deal expiring (unless he fills out his 6'3" frame and moves to third base). Hardy has a .273/.330/.487 batting line with 14 home runs in 68 games this year and missed 25 games due to an oblique strain.
28 Chicago Cubs
Last Week: 28
As dominant as Carlos Marmol can be -- for his career he has struck out 11.6 batters per nine innings and gotten misses on 30.3 percent of swings -- he's also awfully combustible. In 44 appearances this year he's only allowed multiple runs more times (four) than he's allowed one run (three). Most recently he faced five batters last Thursday and allowed each to reach (one hit, four walks) and later score. Six of the seven outings in which he gave up a run resulted in a blown save; in the seventh, which happened last Friday, he was pulled before the ninth inning was over.
29 Seattle Mariners
Last Week: 23
The 2010 Mariners' 513 runs were the majors' fewest since 1982, except for the strike-shortened 1994 season; embarrassingly, however, all but six teams in '94 still exceeded 513 runs despite none playing more than 117 games. Now the 2011 Mariners' offense has its own shot at historic infamy: as written in The Seattle Times on Monday morning, at the time Seattle was scoring 1.86 runs per game, which would be the fourth-lowest scoring month by any team of all-time, contributing to their active 11-game losing streak..
30 Houston Astros
Last Week: 30
General manager Ed Wade acknowledged to the Houston Chronicle that contending clubs are going to view the Astros as a "land of opportunity" for the stretch run, and that began Tuesday with the trade of infielder Jeff Keppinger to the Giants. With new ownership's hope of paring payroll to $60 million, starters Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers are likely to be made available and -- if the price is right -- so too should be outfielders Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence. In the 30 days from June 19 through July 18, the Astros failed to win consecutive games and went just 4-20.

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