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Mehno: Bad division keeping Bucs’ hopes alive

Commentary

PITTSBURGH — The second half of the Pirates season starts today and raises the question:

Is this team a contender?

The answer is maybe.

The division has been very forgiving to this point, allowing a team with a sub-.500 record to think it has a chance to finish first.

It wouldn’t be right to call it a comedy of errors, because there hasn’t been anything funny about it.

Two players — Jung Ho Kang and Starling Marte — fought the law, and the law won.

The destruction Marte’s decision to bulk up has caused is incalculable. It took a productive bat and Gold Glove out of the lineup and led to a progression of left fielders who can’t play left field.

Take your favorite vehicular analogy — the Pirates are like a boat that springs another leak as soon as one is patched. Or they’re like a distressed old car that sputters down the road, spewing fumes and making strange noises.

Whatever it’s been, it hasn’t been good. The offense spent a month in the deep freeze. When that finally thawed, the bullpen fell apart.

It seems like there’s a .200 hitter in the lineup every night. Underachievers abound; overreachers can fit in the same booth at Eat ‘n Park.

On Saturday, the San Francisco Giants walked 10 hitters. The Pirates scored one run and left 15 men on base. Nobody has stranded that many since USAirways shut down.

Sometimes a below-average division never gets better. In 1973, the Pirates, reeling from the death of Roberto Clemente and Steve Blass’ sudden inability to throw strikes, had a major backslide. The New York Mets won the division with a modest 82-79 record.

The 1997 season was similar, with a malaise gripping the entire National League Central. That allowed the Pirates, with the smallest payroll in MLB, to stay in the race until the last week of the season. The Pirates were like gum on the shoes of the Houston Astros, who won the division with an 84-78 mark.

But seasons like that are few and far between, one reason the ’97 Pirates were referred to as the freak show.

It’s possible for a good team to have a bad first half and prevail. Case in point is the 1974 Pirates, who were buried in fifth place with a 37-44 record at the midpoint. That was a prelude to a 51-30 finishing kick (.630 winning percentage) that won the division.

The Cubs are still the most talented team in the division. They had a tumultuous week, which included the release of a catcher who publicly blamed a teammate and a star third baseman (Kris Bryant) who sprained an ankle when he caught a routine pop-up, then tripped over the base.

Can the fates continue to conspire against the Cubs? Will the St. Louis Cardinals emerge from the shadows and take advantage of the opportunity? Is what Milwaukee has done sustainable?

There’s a chance for the Pirates to steal a division. But are they capable of doing that? At halftime, can’t do better than a shaky “maybe.”

New challenge

There’s no summer vacation for Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, who is tasked with replacing several players from his two-time Stanley Cup champion.

Unlike last year, when the team returned mostly intact, Rutherford is dealing with free agent defections like Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Trevor Daley and the subtraction of Marc-Andre Fleury via the expansion draft. There may be more departures, which will have Rutherford shopping for free agents and trades.

The team that raises the banner in October won’t be the same one that won the Cup. Rutherford’s been on a long winning streak with his personnel moves, and he’ll need to maintain that magic touch.

Wishing and hoping

Look closely when Clint Hurdle signals for a reliever. Are his fingers crossed?

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com

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