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The Pirates Have Youth, Nostalgia, And The NL Central On Their Side

Andrew McCutchen singles for his 2000th career hit
Justin Berl/Getty Images

The demise of the Pirates, which looked inevitable once they followed up an April jolt with a 6-19 slump, might be on hold for at least a little while longer. Sunday against the Mets was one of the best games Pittsburgh's seen in a long, long time, as fans got both a milestone hit and a win that gave them sole possession of first place in their woeful division.

Before anyone knew what the Pirates were going to do in 2023, the big draw for this season was the return of 36-year-old Andrew McCutchen, who'd wandered through four different franchises after the team unceremoniously traded him in January 2018. In a recent GQ profile, McCutchen said he "cried for two days” when he heard the news that he'd been shipped to San Francisco. But now that he's back raising his family in Pittsburgh, and getting hits more often than he was anywhere else, he has a chance to both end this relationship on a better note and give fans at least one more year to cheer for an all-time favorite. They got to do plenty of that in the first inning on Sunday, as Cutch notched his long-awaited 2,000th hit to a big ovation from the crowd.

“I wanted to do it here in Pittsburgh,” McCutchen made sure to note after the game. He meant, literally, that he wanted 2,000 before the Pirates started their road trip this week, but it also clearly matters more that he got it while a Pirate and not as a mercenary in an unfamiliar land. (Sidney Crosby and a former Steelers quarterback each had messages ready to be played in the ballpark after the hit.) But it helps, too, that this game really mattered, and his much-improved group of teammates ensured there was a win to celebrate at the end.

The bedrock was Mitch Keller, Pirates ace, who bounced back from some shaky starts to deliver a seven-inning, one-run, two-hit performance that denied the Mets any chance to put together a crooked inning. With a nasty new cutter in his arsenal, the 27-year-old Keller has blossomed this season from one of many indistinguishably mediocre starters into his staunch bullpen's best friend. Say what you will about wins as a stat, but after back-to-back seasons where Keller went 5-11 and then 5-12, that 8-2 mark he's sporting now should feel pretty sweet.

It only took a couple of big Pirate hits to make this start a success, and the black-and-gold guys got them in the fourth. To lead off the inning, the strong young outfielder Jack Suwinski made a baseball disappear.

And then rookie Ji Hwan Bae used his speed to enter scoring position, stretching a single into a double and advancing to third on a wild pitch. Next in the order, the 23-year-old shortstop Tucupita Marcano sent him home with a no-nonsense hit beyond the infield.

David Bednar, the surehanded closer whose only blown ninth led to a Bae walk-off in early April, made things a little interesting by putting the tying run on second. But two straight fly-outs followed, and the Pirates had their 2-1 win which, combined with a 14-7 demolition on Friday (they were up 14-2 after eight), earned them the series against the Mets. With the Brewers falling to the Oakland A's (ironically a team that also tripped up Pittsburgh before the Mets came to town), the Pirates ended the day with a one-game lead over Milwaukee—the only other team above .500 in the division.

Even after a week in which they dropped two games to MLB's laughingstocks, everything is looking sunny in Pittsburgh. They've reversed their fall with eight wins in their last 11. They've got a rejuvenated hero in McCutchen. Kids like Suwinski and Connor Joe are previewing regular flashes of their potential. Oneil Cruz, their most electric prospect whose injury looked like a critical blow when it happened, is still due back before the end of summer. And even though they've shown the inconsistency that comes with inexperience, the underlying signs are promising. This is a patient collection of hitters that's fourth in the league in walks and 21st in strikeouts. Their BABIP, a simple attempt to measure "luck," is an unconcerning 14th out of 30 teams.

The pitching is a little less calming, but so far these mostly unproven arms (and Rich Hill, somehow) are treading water, and they'll continue to be helped by a lack of prime competition. Nobody in the NL Central has really figured themselves out yet. The Cardinals stink, the Cubs are slacking off, the Reds might be getting exciting but are still starting that journey, and the Brewers couldn't hit a piñata with their blindfolds off. None of the 11 best records in MLB right now play in this division. The Pirates don't even have to be great to deliver a worthwhile season to their fans. They just have to be a little bit better than some other Midwestern jabronis.

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