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After the Pittsburgh Pirates finished the first half of the 2016 MLB Season with a 46-43 record, I have one way to describe their current status as they get ready for the remaining 74 games of the season: Pretty Good.

Now before you give me a ‘side eye’ expression as if I’ve lost my mind, consider all that this team has been through since the season started in April: Struggling starting pitching, struggling relief pitching, a struggling Andrew McCutchen, a hardly-visible Jung Ho Kang, injuries to Francisco Cervelli, Gerrit Cole, Ryan Voglesong (I think), the Chicago Cubs. And they’re still 46-43??? Well, I think my point is rather justified.

Now we won’t have a conversation if you compare the Pirates 2016 first half record to their 2015 first half record, which was an incredible 53-35. Do you remember it? They finished the Half with 2 amazing walk-off wins vs. the St. Louis Cardinals, who were leading the NL Central at the time. That Pirates team would go onto finish the season with a 98-64 record, their best since 1991, but the difference between those 2 teams was the fact that the ’91 team won the NL East and had the best record in baseball, while the 2015 team had the 2nd best record in baseball, but they finished 2 games behind the best record in baseball in the 100-62 Cardinals. They did make the playoffs, but lost 4-0 to the Cubs in the NL Wild Card Game.

This year’s team probably won’t win 98 games, but it doesn’t matter if they can make a return to the postseason for a record 4th consecutive season. At one point, I didn’t think it was possible with how the team was struggling. When the Pirates finished June, they were 5 games under .500 in 3rd place in the NL Central, 14 games back from the first place Cubs. to be honest, I said that they stunk and that the Front Office didn’t care about trying to save this season, and it was possible that they were looking to break up this team by becoming ‘sellers’ at the now August 1st (formerly July 31st) Non-Waiver Trade Deadline. Yeah, I said it-and meant it.

Whether GM Neal Huntington and Owner Bob Nutting heard my comments remains to be seen but seriously, after taking 2 of 3 from the LA Dodgers, Seattle Mariners and sweeping the Oakland A’s, the Pirates have truly revived. They got their ‘Eye of the Tiger’ back, and that was very evident after they finished the first half by taking 2 of 3 from those Cubs, a team that had beaten them 8 of 9 times up to that point, 3 of 4 from the Cardinals and the fact that on Friday, they beat 2015 CY Young winner Jake Arietta 8-4. Then they absolutely destroyed them 12-6 on Saturday on 4 HRs, one of them, a Grand Slam by rookie Josh Bell. Although they blew that 6-5 game on Sunday, it was still a good way to end the first half.

In addition to the Pirates being 46-43, in 3rd place, 7.5 games back from the Cubs (.5 back from 2nd place St. Louis) and they’re now only 1.5 games back from both NL Wild Card spots. They will send LF Starling Marte and closer Mark Melancon to the 2016 All-Star Game in San Diego, which will be played Tuesday night.

Here are the keys to the Pirates turnaround:

  1. Pitching-I’ve said this all along: When you have good pitching, you will always have a chance. That was non-existent a few weeks ago. Now that starting pitching is making a return. Led by (I still can’t believe I’m saying this) 8-5 Jeff Locke, 2 rookies in Jameson Tallion (2-1) and Chad Kuhl (1-0) and the fact that the Bullpen got their mojo back by not blowing leads late in the game, that paved the way for the Pirates resurgence from 5 games below .500.
  2. Andrew McCutchen-The man played the worst first 3 months of a season in his career. He’s already struck out a Pedro Alvarez (I know, not fair) 92 times, and has missed his first All-Star Game in 5 years (he started last season) and suddenly, the McCutchen that we know and love has caught fire. In the Cubs series, he hit 2 huge HRs and drove on 4 runs on 2 base hits. He’s the Face of the Pirates, and his turn-around is inspiring. He’s not hitting .247 and leads the Pirates with 14 HRs.
  3. Rookies-Who says rookies can’t help a team? Just ask the Pittsburgh Penguins, who used several rookies in the second half of their 2015-16 NHL season and they ended up winning the Stanley Cup. Maybe the Pirates took a page out of their book as they called up prospects Tallion, Kuhl, Tyler Glasnow, infielder Adam Fraizer and finally…1B Josh Bell.

It wasn’t an impressive finish for Glasnow as he eventually gave up 5 runs to the Cardinals, but he also held them in check for a couple of innings while holding onto a 1-0 lead. Fraizer has been a true utility hitter but hitting .333 in 14 games, but Bell made a huge impact in 3 pinch-hit appearances as he went 2-3 with a walk, a Grand Slam and 4 RBI and 3 runs scored. Yes, it’s true that he still hasn’t played the field, but in my opinion, Bell doesn’t need to prove whether he belongs in the MLB level. But he’ll probably be demoted back to AAA Indianapolis until September, which is a hot mess.

Anyway, here’s my forecast of the Pirates 2nd half: I feel that they have as much of a chance as any contending NL team to get one of those Wild Card spots, because of 1. the parity, the NY Mets, LA Dodgers, Miami Marlins and Cardinals, aren’t that far from the Pirates in that race and a good winning streak could change things. and 2. the fact that the Pirates have been here 3 other times before. They know how to respond during crunch time and I think it’s starting to set in now.

Here are the keys to success in the Pirates second half:

  1. Moves at the trade deadline/Pitching-I lump these two together because quite frankly, the Pirates desperately need to add an experienced starting pitcher (or two) at the deadline if they’re serious about October Baseball. Aside from Locke and the rookies, the pitching has been downright horrible and disappointing. Reliable Francisco Liriano is looking like the end of the road is near as he’s struggled to a disappointing 5-8 record, although he still leads the team with 88 strikeouts. Now he could prove me wrong as he’s shown that he’s a 2nd half pitcher over his career, so we shall see.

Jonathan Niese was truly a mistake from day one when they acquired him from the NY Mets in an offseason trade, which was truly a salary dump. Niese was supposed to benefit from the genius of pitching coach Ray Searage, but the man is a pitching coach, not a magician. Niese has the worst 6-5 record in baseball and hit’s hard to believe that his 5.13 ERA leads the team. No seriously guys, trade for some pitching. And it’s also reported that Niese is on the trading block. Makes you wonder who would want him.

Huntington stated on espn.com that the Pirates will be ‘buyers’ at the deadline “Our expectation is we are going to add,” said Huntington. “Our mindset is we are going to add and put ourselves, for the first time in the franchise history, in position to make the postseason four consecutive years.” We shall see.

  1. Andrew McCutchen-Much like what I said in my previous posts about this man, if he keeps it going and puts the Pirates on his back, the Pirates will make the postseason. McCutchen can is the type of player who can do that. And if they can continue to get contributions from Marte (.316 BA, 99 hits), Gregory Polanco (.287, 12, 50), infielder David Freese (.291, 10, 38), and John Jaso, Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison (a combined .273, 13 HRs and 97 RBI) the Pirates can keep it going. Plus, their bench is incredible, starting with super-sub Matt Joyce (.295, 8, 27) and UT Sean Rodriguez (.261, 10, 31) who honestly know their roles-and have done well in them thus far. 3B Jung Ho Kang (.248, 11, 30) has clearly struggled because of off-the field-matters, but if he could turn it around, his impact will also be a huge benefit.
  2. Health-as it is said in sports, injuries can kill a team, and the Pirates are very fortunate that these injures haven’t killed them. the good news is some players have a strong chance at returning. Cole (5-4, 2.77 ERA), who has been out for a month because of a strained right triceps has the best chance at returning as he’s had impressive rehab starts at AAA Indianapolis. Polanco, who injured his hamstring vs. the Cubs will also most likely return, as for Cervelli (.257), he had surgery June 11 to remove the hook of the hamate bone in his left hand 4 weeks ago and is about to begin a rehab assignment, and his backup, Chris Stewart is still day-to-day with left knee discomfort. If they can get Cole, Polanco and Cervelli back that will be a huge boost for the Pirates.

Summary-I feel like if all the pieces fall together for the Pirates in the second half, they will make the postseason. But, they truly have work to do. Although they won 12 of their last 16 their odds for the postseason are improved much as Baseball Prospectus, have only given the Pirates a 20.6 percent chance of reaching the postseason. But they can prove them wrong, just as they’ve proven me wrong in the past weeks.

In the NBA: Tim Duncan, regarded as the best power forward in NBA history, announced his retirement from the San Antonio Spurs on Monday. And true to the form, the always understated Duncan announced his retirement with a simple team press release.

From the Spurs:

San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan today announced that he will retire after 19 seasons with the organization. Since drafting Duncan, the Spurs won five championships and posted a 1,072-438 regular season record, giving the team a .710 winning percentage, which is the best 19-year stretch in NBA history and was the best in all of the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB over the last 19 years.

Duncan spent his entire 19-year career with the Spurs, winning five championships, two regular season MVPs and three Finals MVPs. The 15-time All-Star, drafted No. 1 overall from Wake Forest in 1997, averaged 19 points (while shooting 50.8 percent from the floor), 10.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.17 blocks throughout his career.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver released a statement praising Duncan as “one of the most dominant players in NBA history.”

“Tim Duncan is one of the most dominant players in NBA history. His devotion to excellence and mastery of the game led to five NBA championships, two regular-season MVP awards and a place among the all-time greats, while his understated selflessness made him the ultimate teammate. For two decades Tim represented the Spurs, the city of San Antonio and the league with passion and class. All of us in the NBA family thank him for his profound impact on the game.”

Duncan hasn’t been in his prime for quite some time now but he’s was still a very effective player late in his career. Especially on the defensive end, where last season Duncan — according to the Spurs — led the NBA in Defensive RPM (5.41). Last season at 40 years old, Duncan averaged a very productive 8.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in 25.2 minutes a game.

Duncan retiring signals an end of an era in San Antonio. The Big 3 of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker is now no more and San Antonio will now continue to build around Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Spurs should still be one of the top teams in the league without Duncan, but his absence, especially from a leadership standpoint, will surely be missed. But all good things can’t last forever and the Spurs should be able to move on rather quickly under the guidance of coach Gregg Popovich.

And for Duncan, he will likely stay under the radar and fade away from the NBA spotlight until we see him in Springfield in a few years. Next stop: The Basketball Hall of Fame.

In Pitt Football News: Pitt sophomore safety Jordan Whitehead has been named to the 39-player watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award, which is annually presented to college football’s top defensive back by the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame.

 

Whitehead, who was last week also placed on the watch lists for the Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy as a candidate for National Defensive Player of the Year, received his third watch-list selection of the 2016 preseason with Monday morning’s release of the Thorpe Award contenders.

 

The reigning ACC Rookie of the Year led the Panthers with 109 total tackles last season, setting a school record for stops by a true freshman. In winning the ACC Rookie of the Year award, Whitehead became the first defensive player to earn that distinction since North Carolina cornerback Dre’ Bly in 1996.

 

The all-action defender finished his phenomenal debut season with six tackles for loss, a sack assist, six pass breakups, one interception and a fumble return for a touchdown (22 yards against Navy in the Military Bowl) to earn consensus selection as a Freshman All-American in 2015. Whitehead also averaged 10.2 yards per carry for the season and scored two rushing touchdowns against Notre Dame in selected offensive playing time.

 

Whitehead is Pitt’s first Thorpe Award watch-list honoree since Jarred Holley was selected as a contender for the distinction ahead of his senior season in 2012. Dom DeCicco (2010) and Aaron Berry (2009) also recently earned preseason recognition from the Thorpe Award for the Panthers.

 

Members of the 2016 Pitt football team have now earned a total of nine watch-list selections ahead of the upcoming campaign. Along with Whitehead’s three selections, junior running back James Conner (Maxwell Award), senior defensive end Ejuan Price (Bednarik Award), senior offensive tackle Adam Bisnowaty and senior guard Dorian Johnson (Outland Trophy), junior center Alex Officer (Rimington Trophy) and junior punter Ryan Winslow (Ray Guy Award) were also placed on the watch lists for some of college football’s most prestigious individual awards.

 

Please e-mail Ray at ray@urbanmediatodaay.com

Follow him @urbanmediaRay on Twitter

www.cbssports.com

www.PittsburghPanthers.com

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