Pirates pass first half test, but there is work still ahead

During any given school year between first grade and senior year of high school, I stressed out at least four times every 10 weeks.

When the end of the grading period was approaching I had my calculator out trying to figure out my average grade in each class for that term.

“Oh, sweet. That 94-percent on the biology pop quiz will really boost my grade. Oh, no. That 55-percent on the the biology exam will totally bring my grade down.”

It went something like that – four times a year – for 12 years.

Thankfully, those years are behind me. Kids, sorry if you’re still stuck in that phase. But be thankful, it’s summer!

With the Mid-Summer Classic come and gone, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the rest of Major League Baseball are gearing up for the second half of the season and pushing towards the playoffs.

Though it’s already past the true midpoint of the season (so far, 95 games have been played and there are still 67 left), this marking place has long been a gauge for a teams performance.

Right now, the Pirates are 49-46 – above .500 for the fourth-straight season at the All-Star Break. Last year, the Pirates were 56-37 at the unofficial midway point. They finished the year at 94-68 to break a 20-year losing streak and make the playoffs for the first time since 1992.

History won’t necessarily be made this year, but it has a good chance to repeat itself.

Pittsburgh will have to go 45-22 the rest of the way in order to duplicate the 94 wins from 2013. The Pirates have 21 games remaining against fellow National League Central Division opponents. They’ve gone 22-30 against league foes, so far.

Pittsburgh doesn’t face another Central opponent until the last week of August when it hosts a six-game homestand against the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds – two teams that sit above the Pirates in the division race.

The Milwaukee Brewers are alone at the top – like they have been since the first week of the season. The Pirates face the Brewers six more times the rest of the way.

In order to succeed, though, they need to worry about themselves.

And if these big league ballplayers are anything like me, the calculator has been out for a few weeks now.

On offense, I’m giving the Pirates a ‘B.’

Pittsburgh is currently tied for third with Milwaukee in the National League in team batting with a .257 collective average. The offense has collected 85 home runs (fourth), 391 runs (fifth) and a .332 on-base percentage (first).

However, the most glaring statistic is the most frustrating. Out of all 30 MLB teams, the Pirates are 26th in the runners left-on-base department. They strand 15.16 runners, each game, according to teamrankings.com.

On the pitching mound, I’m giving the Pirates a ‘D.’

In years past with the Pirates, I’d cringe when Lastings Milledge was chasing down a fly ball in left field and when Ryan Doumit was trying to catch a runner stealing second base. It was tough to watch Ronny Cedeno pinch hit and even rougher to sit through a Chris Stynes at-bat, at any time.

I never thought I’d be nervous when a Pirates pitcher took the mound in 2014, at any time.

The starting staff has a collective 3.75 earned run average, which is 11th in the National League. In 2013, the starters were third in the league with a 3.26 ERA.

Injuries to Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole has caused the rotation to take a hit, but Vance Worley and Jeff Locke have filled in admirably when called upon. In fact, they’ve pitched more like sure-fire starters than Liriano and Cole, anyway.

Edinson Volquez and Charlie Morton have been strong, as of late, but were a part of the inflated ERA problem at the beginning of the season. So was Wandy Rodriguez, but parting ways with him made the starters stronger immediately.

Based on starters, alone, I’d give the pitchers a ‘C,’ however, the bullpen brings the staff down considerably.

The banck-end has blown 14 saves already, which is third in the NL. Tony Watson has pitched like the All-Star the he was, but even he has a blown save to his name.

If the front office brings in anybody to help push the Pirates to a postseason-chase, I’d bet it’s a pitcher. A front-end starter like an A.J. Burnett or a seasoned closer like a Huston Street would be the equivalent of a sixth grader earning extra credit before the grading period winds up.

So, overall this season has been a C-plus in my eyes. Intangible boosts come from the emergence of Josh Harrison, the breath of fresh air from Gregory Polanco and the magnificence of Andrew McCutchen.

The Pirates open up a six game homestand today by welcoming the Colorado Rockies and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Winning the series sets the tone for a strong second half. Losing it, makes it harder to make up ground.

The NL Central is the toughest division in baseball and the Cardinals, Brewers, Reds and Pirates all have a shot at the crown. It’s going to come down to whose star players continue their potential, whose role players contribute when asked and whose front office brings in a key piece for the stretch.

It’s a fresh start, here in the second half of the season. It’s a new grading period, as well.

There’s just no time to wait until the last minute to boost up a report card.

(Peaslee, a Youngstown native, is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at mpeaslee@heraldstaronline.com and followed on Twitter at @thempeas)