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The past week has had the Pittsburgh Pirates playing some of the most important games of their still-new 2016 schedule, which are against the NL Central Division, where they reside. So far, it’s been pretty good as they’ve been able to win series against the Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers and most surprisingly, the St. Louis Cardinals whom they swept in 4 games to open the season and won 2 of 3 this past weekend in St. Louis with 4-1 and 10-5 victories. It could’ve easily been a sweep if they would’ve pitched better in their 6-4 10-inning loss.

But the only team from the division that the Pirates have not beaten is not only the best team in the Central, but in all of baseball. That team is the 24-6 Chicago Cubs, who have stunned many by living up to their off season hype that was a direct response to their 97-win 2015, which included a 4-0 pasting of the Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game.

Some felt like the Cubs would just be a fluke because of their unfortunate history, but this team is looking like they’re trying to eliminate over 100 years of losing and frustration and make their first World Series since 1908. And they’re looking like their trying to clinch their first division title since 2008 by plowing through some of the NL’s best teams, which includes the Pirates as they demolished them in a 3-game sweep last week with scores of 6-2, 7-2 and 7-1. The Cubs then went onto sweep the NL East’s 2nd place team, the Washington Nationals (19-12) in 4 games.

Meanwhile the Pirates who are in NL Central’s 2nd place team at 17-14, were able to redeem themselves against the Cardinals (16-16) but they find themselves trailing the Cubs by 7.5 games-which means that if the season ended today, they would not make the postseason for the 4th consecutive season as they’re currently trailing the Nationals and the surprising Philadelphia Phillies (18-14) for those Wild Card Spots.

Needless to say, the Pirates have lots of work to do.

What truly helped the Pirates vs. the Cardinals was the return of 3B Jung Ho Kang. The infielder, who is now in his 2nd season made his return for the first time in 7 months after suffering a gruesome injury while attempting to turn a double play vs. the Cubs at PNC Park. Kang’s absence truly affected the Pirates in the remaining games of the season, including the Wild Card Game.

Kang got the start at 3rd base Friday night and finished the night belting 2 HRs and driving in 3 in their 4-2 victory. They also got help from superb pitching performances from Francisco Liriano (3-1) and Gerrit Cole, who seems to have rebounded from an 0-2 start at 3-3. 1B Jon Jaso, who has truly been a surprise for the Pirates also belted his 3rd HR of the season and RF Gregory Polanco hit his 4th.

As the Pirates continue their trek through the NL Central, they know that the one thing they need to do in order to keep it going, are wins. They key to their success in the past has been their pitching, and unlike the 2013-16 seasons, this rotation doesn’t look as solid after Liriano and Cole.

Starter Jonathan Niese, who was acquires from the NY Mets in the Neil Walker trade, is actually among the team leaders in wins, but his high ERA is hurting the team. Surprise starter Juan Nicasio (3-3) is holding steady with a 3.16 ERA, but the obvious issue is Jeff Locke and why the Pirates continue to use him as a starter.

Locke is currently 1-2 with a 4.68 ERA and although his only victory was an impressive one, it’s apparent that he’s not going to regain his pre-2013 form that landed him in the All-Star Game. Manager Cling Hurdle and GM Neil Huntington knows that they have stud’s pitchers Jameson Tallion and Tyler Glasnow, dominating AAA ball, but until they get a possible call-up in June, the Pirates are stuck with what they have, because it’s obvious that a trade isn’t in the works.

The bullpen isn’t looking as impressive as in year’s past either as they’ve struggled-especially in middle relief. Deposed starter Ryan Voglesong (3.52 ERA), AJ Schugel (4.40 ERA) Kyle Lobstein (4.79 ERA), Arquimedes Caminero (5.27 ERA) and Jared Hughes (4.91 ERA) have been flat-out awful. Even All-Star set-up man Tony Watson (2.87) has looked as sharp. And to think that the Pirates had considered trading closer Mark Melancon, who’s still their best relief option with 9 saves, but even his 2.77 ERA is a concern.

Once again, the Pirates have work to do & fixing their pitching is top priority.

The Pirates are one of the top hitting teams in baseball with LF Starling Marte 8th in the NL with a .336 batting average. 2B Josh Harrison (.314) and C Francisco Cervelli (.305) have also looked impressive. Although CF Andrew McCutchen leads the team with 6 HRs, 3 of them came in one night against Colorado and .238 batting average is a concern. But the 2013 NL MVP is known for slow starts and usually starts heating up in May and June. So he gets a pass-for now.

Needless to say, the Pirates are still in the thick of things and being above .500 despite their struggles are commendable, but if they’re really trying for a shot at a division title-or even a championship, those feats aren’t good enough anymore, especially in an improved National League. As mentioned before, they have work to do.

In other sports news: The NBA made news as they’ve announced that Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry has been named the NBA MVP for the second consecutive season. Curry led the Warriors to an NBA record 73-win season and amazingly elevated his game from last season by averaging more points (league-leading 30.1 ppg), rebounds, steals while shooting better from the field and from 3-point range. Overall, Curry averaged 30.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 2.1 steals in 34.2 minutes a game. He also racked up plenty of accolades. Curry is only the 13th player in NBA history to win back-to-back MVPs. Since 2000, the only players to do so are LeBron James, Steve Nash and Tim Duncan. He is currently battling a knee injury, which is keeping him out of playoff action.

The Sacramento Kings have also made news as they’ve announced the hiring for former Indiana Pacers HC Frank Vogel as their next coach.

Please e-mail Ray at ray@urbanmediatoday.com

Follow him @urbanmediaRay on twitter

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