Bob Smizik: Time to smell the roses


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The article originally planned for today was going to address the black hole on the Pirates known as first base and what can be done to increase the less-than-anemic production coming from Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez. It’s a worthwhile topic, but it’s for another day.

Today, with the Pirates in second place just 4 1/2 games behind Milwaukee, a more proper thing to do is smell the roses and appreciate what this team has done -- not what it hasn’t done.

Let me count, in no particular order, some of the reasons to be enjoying instead of critiquing this season:

1. After opening the year with a 12-20 record, the Pirates are 35-21, which is a 101-win pace. They have won six of their past seven, eight of their past 10, and 12 of their past 15. They have established themselves as a legitimate contender, despite weaknesses. A fabulous summer of baseball excitement awaits us. We were thrilled by a three-team race last year. Now we have a four-team race. Get set for a lot of scoreboard-watching.

2. Pennant-race excitement begins tonight in St. Louis, where the Pirates will play four games, and continues in Cincinnati, where they will play three. In no way will these seven games determine the outcome of the season. But they will have the drama of the games of September.

3. So much of the success of the past two months was on display Sunday when Jeff Locke, given up on by many, pitched the Pirates to a 6-2 win over Philadelphia. It was the sixth straight outstanding start for Locke, who was among the worst pitchers in the National League in the second half of last season. But it’s not just been Locke. It’s also been Vance Worley, Edinson Volquez and Brandon Cumpton, who have given the Pirates unexpectedly strong performances. Raise your hand if you thought the Pirates would be in second place on July 7 with Locke, Worley and Volquez being their three best starters.

4. For the third straight summer, Andrew McCutchen is presenting Pirates fans and the baseball public with his outlandish skills a superlative case for winning the MVP award. He didn’t win the award in 2012, but did last year. There’s such a long way to go in this season it’s kind of silly to be even talking about the MVP winner. But McCutchen's level of play has been so superb it demands the discussion. He is in the top 10 in the NL in nine significant categories, including second in hits and on-base percentage and third in OPS. What a treat it is to be able to watch such a player every day.

5. One of the best stories of the entire MLB season is Josh Harrison, the quintessential 25th man whose play has forced manager Clint Hurdle to make him the team’s 10th starter. Harrison’s bat has cooled, but his ability to get the big hit, make the crucial throw, come up with the impossible catch has not. He had a triple and scored two runs Sunday as he continues to be in the middle of most every Pirates win. With Clint Barmes out for close to a month, expect to see Harrison get a chance to play shortstop.

6. As recently as last week, people were calling for the Pirates to upgrade at shortstop over Jordy Mercer. That is not going to happen. The Pirates did what they have to do and made a commitment to their young shortstop. For a too-long period this season, it looked like a mistake. It wasn’t. Check out these numbers: From May 31 through Saturday this is Mercer’s batting line: .319/.364/.504 -- .869. He won’t remind anyone of Jack Wilson with his range, but he is making the plays he has to make. One of the most pleasant non-pitching surprises of the season.

7. It should not be a shock that Tony Watson made the All-Star team because the case could be made he is the best relief pitcher in the National League. Among pitchers with 40 or more innings -- which is virtually all of them -- Watson not only leads the league in ERA, he leads by a whopping margin. His ERA is 0.89. Jake Arrieta is second at 1.78. Watson also is ninth in WHIP, seventh in K/9 and 11th in K/B. Left-handers bat .190 against him, right-handers .202.

8. It’s hard to recall a catcher who has had more impact on a Pirates team than Russell Martin has in his two seasons, and I say that with all respect for Manny Sanguillen, Tony Pena and Jason Kendall. Martin is the consummate defensive catcher and handler of pitchers. He is adding to that with an offensive presence that too often is underrated. It would be nice to hit a home run every time up, but the primary object of every batter is not to make an out. Martin is better at that than anyone in the National League except McCutchen and Troy Tulowitzki.

9-10. The accomplishments of Hurdle and General Manager Neal Huntington, as do other players, also deserve to be on this list, which has run too long already, for they have made important contributions to the success of the team. They’re for another day.

Smell the roses while enjoying the next seven games.


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