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'Shark Tank' Has Pirates Rolling, Can They Avoid Another Summer Swoon?

Detroit Tigers v Pittsburgh Pirates

Earlier this week we highlighted the Cincinnati Reds and how their improved lineup should make the race in the National League Central with the first-place Cardinals one to watch this summer. As we close out May, the Pittsburgh Pirates are trying to crowbar their way into the race, like they did last summer. After beating the Detroit Tigers 1-0 in extra innings – the second time they’ve done that this week – the Pirates moved into second place in the Central. It was Pittsburgh’s 19th win in June and their 34-20 record is second baseball behind St. Louis.

As good as the Pirates have been this month, the club has a long way go if it wants to finish above .500 – and make the postseason – for the first time since 1992. In the previous two seasons managed by Clint Hurdle, the Pirates have been a good first-half team. In 2011 they entered the All-Star break four-games over .500 and last year they were 11-over. The second halves for Hurdle and the Pirates have proved more treacherous than navigating the Mojave desert in the summer.

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Over the second half of 2011 the Pirates went 25-47. Last year Pittsburgh went 31-46, leading to a pair of fourth-place finishes.

Offensively, there’s not much that stands out about the Pirates. They’re in the bottom half of most categories in the league, although Andrew McCutchen and second-year standout Starling Marte do comprise two thirds of a nice outfield.

Pitching seems to be what’s carrying the Pirates, specifically the bullpen which closer Jason Grilli dubbed, “the Shark Tank,” telling the Chicago Tribune:

“We’ve got a lot of sharks out in that bullpen. When we smell blood, we attack.”

They’ve even installed an actual shark tank inside the clubhouse.

Grilli, a former first-round pick by the Giants, has been outstanding in 2013 installed as the closer, taking over for Joel Hanrahan after he was traded to Boston. The 13-year vet is 22-for-22 in save opportunities, pitching to a 1.09 ERA with 38 strikeouts compared to five walks.

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Set-up man Mark Melancon, part of the Hanrahan deal, is even better with a 0.93 ERA with 29 Ks and just two walks in 29 innings. It’s quite the turnaround for the righty who was a disaster last year in Boston pitching to a 6.20 ERA in 45 innings. Relative unknowns Justin Wilson (4-0, 1.41) and Vin Mazzaro (3-0, 2.08) have provided depth in the Buccos’ pen. (If the Pirates’ pen keeps this up pretty soon Brody and Quint will be swapping stories about it.)

Overall the Pirates pitching staff is second in baseball in ERA (3.12) and first in Batting Average Against (.222). Not bad for a team where its ace is A.J. Burnett, who does lead the National League with 89 strikeouts. (And forearm tattoos.)

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Tonight the Pirates host the Reds at PNC Park. How Pittsburgh fares against its Central rivals might end up determining its playoff fate. The Pirates are a combined 6-2 vs. the Reds and Cardinals, so far. It’s only a matter of time before the Pirates begin being inundated by reminders of their woeful second halves under Hurdle, so they’ll have to drown out that noise. The Cardinals certainly know how to win, the Reds too.

Time will tell if the Pirates ‘sharks’ sink or swim.

[Image via Getty Images]

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