Notes and observations from the first half of the Major League Baseball season:
n Preseason predictions are often as insignificant in Major League Baseball as they are in the National Football League, NCAA football or NCAA basketball.
Teams that are billed as can't-miss champions sometimes flounder miserably, and teams that aren't given much of a chance to accomplish anything sometimes surprise everybody and rise to the top.
This past March, the Washington Nationals were considered the class of the National League, the defending world champion San Francisco Giants were given a good shot to win another league pennant, and the Los Angeles Dodgers - who broke the bank with several big signings last year - were expected to be pennant contenders as well.
All three of those teams have struggled mightily so far this season, creating a perfect storm for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have been playing exceedingly well.
Pitching is where it's at in baseball, and the Pirates' staff - particularly the bullpen - has been one of baseball's best.
General manager Neal Huntington deserves plenty of credit for astutely picking up talented arms that were either overlooked or considered expendable by other major league teams - notably long reliever Jeanmar Gomez, who has stepped in as a capable fifth starter, eighth-inning set-up specialist Mark Melancon, and lefty starters Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke, who is emerging as the Pirates' ace.
Jason Grilli has become one of baseball's top closers, making Huntington's offseason trade that sent former Bucs closer Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox for Melancon seem, at this point, to be a stroke of genius.
Former major league player and current television analyst Mike Lowell remarked that the Pirates are making every game seem like a seven-inning high school game for opponents, due to the fact that Melancon and Grilli - who have both squandered just one lead apiece this season - have been virtually untouchable in the last two innings.
The depth of the bullpen has enabled the Pirates to mix-and-match through the middle innings, with lefties Tony Watson and Justin Wilson, along with righthanders Vin Mazzaro and Bryan Morris, all making valuable contributions.
And the Bucs aren't married to the idea of just one closer every game, either - with Melancon and Watson each picking up one save and Wilson covering multiple innings late in games.
Superstar Andrew McCutchen hasn't been spectacular through the first half of the season, but the Pirates - who have received much more production throughout their entire batting order - haven't needed him to be.
Throw in the invaluable intangibles - like the irrepressible and contagious optimism of third-year manager Clint Hurdle and the stability provided by free-agent catching acquisition Russell Martin - and the Pirates seem like a great bet not only to break the franchise's onerous 20-year losing streak, but also, to stay in serious contention to win the National League's Central Division all season long.
n Pirates' fans who are interested in tuning in radio broadcasts of games involving the Bucs' division archrivals - the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds - can do so with relative ease after 9 p.m. on summer nights anywhere in this area. The Reds come in as clear as a bell on station 700 AM [WLW], and the Cardinals can be heard on 1120 AM [KMOX]. It's also still a joy to listen to the play-by-play work of veteran Reds' broadcaster Marty Brenneman and former Cardinals' third baseman Mike Shannon, who have both been behind the microphone for four decades.
n Trade-deadline rumors often prove as worthless as preseason predictions, but if the Pirates - or any other contending team - are in the market for a starting pitcher come late July, Houston Astros veteran Bud Norris would be worth a look.
n The Los Angeles Angels' upper-management suits have got to be pulling their collective hair out right about now, watching the high-priced Angels endure another free-fall. How long can veteran field manager Mike Scioscia feel safe?
John Hartsock can be reached at email@example.com.