Pirates are 40-48, but team is excited

If the progress continues,
Pittsburgh is looking forward to an interesting second half.

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of the few teams in the majors that could be excited about a 40-48 record at the All-Star break.

The Pirates are on pace for a 15th consecutive losing season, one short of the major league record, but their record represents a major improvement from their 30-60 at this time last year. Nine victories in their final 13 games and four consecutive series wins before the All-Star break created a much more upbeat clubhouse, too.

“Last year we were 30-60 at this point and demoralized, and this is a much better feel,” Jason Bay said.

The challenge

Here’s the challenge that awaits when they resume play Friday in Atlanta: the Pirates, losers of 95 games each of the previous two seasons, must go 42-32 the rest of the way to end that streak of sub-.500 seasons.

That might seem like too much to ask for, if it weren’t for their improved play of late against contending teams and the string of well-pitched games they have gotten from left-hander Tom Gorzelanny and right-hander Ian Snell. Their defense has been better, committing only one error in 132 innings during the final two weeks before the break.

What the Pirates also find encouraging is they still have a chance for a winning record despite enduring major slumps by their two top power hitters, Bay and Adam LaRoche, and a worse-than-expected first half by their bullpen.

Bay was stuck in the worst slump of his career before he homered and drove in four runs Sunday against the Cubs. Before then, his average had dropped a remarkable 64 points in five weeks from .314 to .250.

LaRoche, the club’s only major offseason position player pickup, was mostly dreadful for 21⁄2 months — his average hovered in the low .200s — but he has five homers and five doubles in his last 10 games.

Not producing

Returning NL batting champion Freddy Sanchez (.297, 2 homers, 32 RBIs) isn’t producing like he did during his .344-85 RBIs season of a year ago, but he missed most of spring training with a knee injury. He has hit well above .300 since early May and had a .343 average in June.

If the Pirates can get Bay, LaRoche, Sanchez and the productive Xavier Nady (.287, 14 homers, 49 RBIs) going at the same time, manager Jim Tracy predicts it could be an “interesting” final 21⁄2 months.

“The last couple of weeks have been very encouraging,” Tracy said. “The pitching will get better. The offense has been better. When you’re pitching with a three- or four-run lead, instead of living on the edge with every pitch you throw, you will be better.”

Gorzelanny (9-4, 3.10 ERA), miserable during spring training but excellent since, and Snell (7-5, 2.93 ERA) were the Pirates who most deserved to go to the All-Star game. Sanchez went instead because the NL needed a backup infielder who could play third base.

While the pitching has been better, thanks partly to relievers Matt Capps (2.42 ERA, nine saves) and Damaso Marte (1.71 ERA), there have been numerous problems, too. A major falloff by catcher Ronny Paulino is among them — he’s hitting .237, down from his .310 as a rookie.

Duke down

Opening day starter Zach Duke (3-7, 5.79 ERA) is the easiest pitcher in the majors to hit, allowing a remarkable 13.5 hits per nine innings. He’s also fighting through an elbow injury that has sidelined him indefinitely.

“He’s got to command that curveball,” said Steve Phillips, the former Mets general manager who often sees Pirates games in his role as an ESPN analyst. “It’s similar to when Barry Zito doesn’t throw his curveball, guys sit on his fastball. And it’s not enough of a fastball to get swings and misses. When he can’t throw that fastball for strikes, righties kill him and lefties kill him.”

Salomon Torres, the closer when the season began, was demoted after blowing six of 18 saves and has been out more than a month with a sore elbow. Starting pitcher Tony Armas (0-3, 8.69 ERA) has been a disappointing pickup.

And the Pirates were so desperate for relievers earlier in the season, they debuted a 39-year-old rookie: former Japanese star Masumi Kuwata, who fulfilled a lifelong goal of pitching in the majors, albeit at the end of his career.

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