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As second half starts: Pirates the real thing, stat quests resume

Yes, we love our American League East in Western New York. The Bisons are with the Blue Jays now. The John Farrell-led Red Sox are the surprise of the division but the Rays are charging. Orioles fans are puffing their chests out more every day with each Chris Davis home run and Yankees fans are hoping their lineup comes together, even if the season may turn into Mariano’s Farewell Tour and nothing more.

So as the schedule kicks back into gear Friday, there will be plenty to talk about in your favorite division. But let’s throw a big change-up your way. Which team should also get a huge amount of your focus?

The Pittsburgh Pirates.

Remember them? Former Bisons parent in the halcyon first years of then-Pilot Field. Back-to-back-to-back champions of the old National League East from 1990 to 1992. Haven’t had a single winning season since ’92, since Sid Bream broke their hearts when he slid home on Francisco Cabrera’s single in Game Seven of the National League Championship Series in Atlanta. That ruined the Pirates-Blue Jays World Series that would have had cars burning through Buffalo for a week.

The Bucs are back now. Big time. Although they’ve been here the last two years and fallen apart. Just last August, they were 16 games over .500. As it turned out, they became the first team in history that far over break-even after 108 games to finish below .500, as a 62-46 record turned into a 79-83 finish. That’s 17-37 to the end, for those scoring at home. Yikes.

In 2013, it appears the Pirates will finally be known more for just the best-in-MLB postcard vista behind the outfield at picturesque PNC Park. They already have one bona fide star in Andrew McCutchen. Fellow outfielder Starling Marte, a graduate of the 2012 Triple-A All-Star Game in Buffalo, is stellar in his own right.

Closer Jason Grilli has become one of the game’s great stories and became a Sports Illustrated cover boy this week thanks to his 29 saves in 30 chances, 1.99 ERA and sick strikeout/walk numbers (63/9 in 40∏ innings). Catcher Russell Martin has been a steadying influence behind the plate and may be the best .236-hitting free agent signee ever.

The Pirates had five All-Stars for the first time in 41 years, even if McCutchen, Grilli, Pedro Alvarez, Mark Melancon and Jeff Locke don’t roll off the tongue quite like Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Steve Blass, Al Oliver and Manny Sanguillen – the quintet that took the field at the 1972 Midsummer Classic in Atlanta.

The Pirates look solidly in the playoff race at this point, with a nine-game lead over the Nationals in the wild-card race. If the season ended today, they’d be hosting the Reds in the wild-card game. Lo and behold, where does the season resume for Pittsburgh? Friday night in Cincinnati.

Many Pirates fans just want to lock up that winning season and get the ghosts of the last 20 years off their backs. But General Manager Neal Huntington has told all who’ve asked the last two years there will be no parades in Pittsburgh for the 82nd win of the season. That only comes when you win the World Series.

The Pirates can do that this year but there are some cautionary tales to watch. They have 17 one-run wins, tied for second in the National League and a sign of a strong bullpen that needs to hold up down the stretch. They have a run differential of plus-46, very low for a team that’s 19 games over .500.

By contrast, the Cardinals (57-36) are plus-127 in the run column and the Reds (53-42) are plus-63. Can the Pirates really go far with an offense that’s just 26th in the big leagues in batting and runs? One reason they could is that some of those numbers come from the fact McCutchen hit just .247 in April and Alvarez hit just .200 in April and May combined.

This division will be decided head to head as the Pirates have an astounding 14 games left against the Cardinals, including a PNC makeup doubleheader July 30 that’s part of a five-game series.

One final Pirates note: Here’s hoping for a lot of national telecasts the rest of the way to overcome MLB’s insidious blackout rules. They keep Pittsburgh games out of this market unless you have an upper tier of DirecTV. Boo to that.

Miggy’s Crown

Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera has a 43-point lead in the AL batting race and is two RBIs ahead of Chris Davis (95-93). It’s on longballs where Davis has a 37-30 edge and is thwarting what would be a historic run to the first back-to-back Triple Crowns in history.

Cabrera has never hit more than 44 home runs in a season but seems destined to do that this year. Davis, meanwhile, is tackling steroid accusations head-on by telling all who ask he is clean. He’s even going one step further by saying he’s trying to break the “real” home run record of 61 set by Roger Maris, ignoring the marks past that of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Mound woes

It seems implausible the ERA of 5.07 posted by Blue Jays’ starters can continue but then you realize their 38 quality starts are the second fewest in baseball and you think it might. R.A. Dickey has 10 losses – only Joe Blanton has more in the American League – and Josh Johnson has just one win and a 5.16 ERA after not having an ERA over 4.00 the last five years in Miami.

What can Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ or maybe even current Bison Ricky Romero do to help going forward? Key question, especially since GM Alex Anthopoulos keeps insisting all the help is coming from within and a trade acquisition like Matt Garza of the Cubs is not forthcoming.

Double trouble

Can Manny Machado break the longstanding record for doubles? The Orioles third baseman has 39 in 96 games at the break, on pace for 66. The record of 67 was set way back in 1931 by Earl Webb of the Red Sox, who did it in a 154-game season.

Some crazy Baltimore perspective: Legendary third baseman Brooks Robinson never had more than 38 doubles in any season of his career.

Other story lines

• The schedule: There will be interleague games right to the end for the first time. Within the final two weeks, the Yankees have three games at home against the Giants, while the Red Sox have a two-game series at Colorado.

• Do the Phillies buy or sell? If they stay mired around .500, they’ll have plenty of suitors asking about Jonathan Papelbon, Cliff Lee, Chase Utley and Michael Young.

• Yasiel Puig: The Dodgers’ Cuban wunderkind reached the break batting .391 in 151 at-bats with a slugging percentage of .616 and and OPS of 1.038. But he has plenty of detractors for his style (too cocky for some opponents) and his stats (which have been built against only eight opponents). He hit the break with no RBIs in his last nine games and no home runs in his last 11. It seems like a major market correction.

• The Nationals: They’ve underachieved for 95 games but maybe the schedule will give them a break and a push to the postseason. From Aug. 19 through Sept. 22, they play only three of 33 games against clubs with winning records, a slate that includes seven games against the Mets, six against the Marlins, four against the Cubs and three against the Royals. Be wary, Braves fans.

• Biogenesis: Lots of chatter at the All-Star Game that any suspensions to come from the latest PED scandal might not take effect until next season. That means Alex Rodriguez, who starts his Triple-A rehab tonight in Scranton, could be in the Yankees’ lineup Monday in Texas and thus make his home debut July 26 against Tampa Bay. The reactions from fans, both home and away, will be worth noting.