Bob Smizik: Pirates can win NL Central

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In some ways, it was not the kindest half season for the Pirates. They staggered through the first month and then staggered to the finish line of the first half.

That might not sound like a formula for future success. But in the NL Central, where injuries could have a major impact on the second half of the season, the Pirates are positioned well and have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs and even win the division.

That might sound a bit too optimistic considering their 49-46 record and that they’re coming off five losses in seven games against two key division rivals. But events around the division have helped the Pirates‘‍ chances.

The serious injuries last week to catcher Yadier Molina of St. Louis and second baseman Brandon Phillips of Cincinnati are a significant boost to the Pirates’‍ hopes. For St. Louis, losing Molina, who could be out for the season with a thumb injury, would be like the Pirates losing Andrew McCutchen. Phillips, out four to six weeks with a thumb injury, isn’t a McCutchen/Molina type player but he’s a good hitter and a superior defender and he joins Joey Votto, the Reds‘‍ best hitter, on the disabled list.

Those are significant obstacles to overcome. And there’s more.

The Cardinals have lost starters Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, who’s done for the season, from their rotation and, thus far, have had difficulty replacing them. Offensively, Matt Holliday and Allen Craig, two vital factors in their outstanding offense of 2013, are having disappointing years. Holliday is batting .265 with a .762 OPS and has only six home runs. Craig is batting .244 with a .648 OPS.

The Cardinals are 13th in runs in the National League. Last year they were first -- by a wide margin.

Not only will the Reds be without Votto and Phillips, but Jay Bruce, part of what had been an excellent middle of the lineup, is having a down season with a .719 OPS.

Milwaukee is healthy and looks strong on paper but has lost nine of its past 11 and its once huge lead in the NL Central is down to one game over St. Louis. Cincinnati is 1½ back and the Pirates 3½.

Neither Milwaukee, St. Louis nor Cincinnati has shown itself to be a superior team. As they stand today, they can be caught.

The Pirates, of course, are not without their weaknesses.

• As has been well documented, the team is getting nothing from its first basemen. Since June 1, Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez have combined to bat .172 (27-for-157), with a slugging percentage under .250 and one home run. Davis has an .869 career OPS in the second half of the season, but there has been zero indication he will come close to that standard this year.

• Rookie Gregory Polanco has run into a wall. Since June 27, he is batting .170 (10-for-59). Worse, he has not been able to solve left-handed pitching. For the season, he is 4-for-30 (.133) and has a 33 percent strikeout rate against lefties.

• The return of Francisco Liriano Sunday was a keen disappointment. The Pirates had hoped Liriano would, after more than a month on the disabled list, return to his 2013 form. He didn’t come close. In four innings, he allowed three runs on three hits and six walks. Three of the walks were on four pitches and he even walked Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto. He threw 94 pitches and only 50 were strikes. Liriano is 1-7 with a 4.72 ERA.

There are other problem areas, too, including the bullpen. But the Pirates have plenty of positives, some of which are overlooked by many. Most notably is the team’s overall offense. The Pirates are fifth in the National League in runs, first in on-base percentage, third in OPS and home runs, and fourth in slugging. Considering the avalanche of criticism leveled at the offense, those numbers should surprise some.

Sure, the Pirates need a lot of things to go their way. For example, they need Gerrit Cole to come back and pitch like an ace. They need improvement at first base. They need another arm in the bullpen. But all teams have problems. The Brewers just added a rookie to their rotation and he was hit hard in his first start. The Reds are asking a light-hitting backup catcher to replace Votto. The Cardinals are without their MVP.

The NL Central is wide open in the second half. The Pirates have almost as good a chance as any team to win it.

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