Turning tables keys Bucs’ success

Notes, thoughts and observations from the Major League Baseball world with a quarter of the season now in the rearview mirror:

n The Pittsburgh Pirates are using a reversal of trends to experience some success in the early part of this season.

While it’s true that the Pirates’ schedule hasn’t been the toughest through the first six weeks of the season, it’s also true that they’re winning most of the games that they’re supposed to win.

That wasn’t true last season, when the Pirates compiled a combined 7-18 record against two teams, Cincinnati and San Francisco, that finished in last place, respectively, in the National League Central and West Divisions.

Over the first six weeks of this season, the Pirates played 15 games against teams with losing records — Miami, Cincinnati, the Chicago White Sox, and Detroit — and won 12 of them.

The Pirates traditionally have not fared well against fellow National League Central Division opponents, but they’ve been turning that trend around, too, winning ten of their first 13 games against division rivals.

It’s all added up to an unexpectedly strong start for the Pirates, who, for the first time in their history, finished the month of April with more than 16 victories by posting a 17-12 record.

n No player in recent memory complains more about ball and strike calls than Pirates’ catcher Francisco Cervelli.

n It says here that the Washington Nationals are going to hit their stride and fulfill expectations by winning the National League East Division, but the upstart Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies are promising to give them a run for their money.

n Phillies manager Gabe Kapler pushed the envelope in early April by promising that his team would make the playoffs this year, and the Fightin Phils have lived up to their nickname and been particularly tough at Citizens Bank Ballpark, winning 16 of their first 22 home games, including four-game sweeps of both the Pirates and San Francisco Giants.

The addition of veteran right-hander Jake Arrieta has fortified a young and promising Phillies’ pitching staff that boasts a star-in-the-making in righty Aaron Nola.

n Speaking of young, the Braves have two of the youngest and most promising position players in the major leagues on their roster in 20-year-old left fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. and 21-year-old second baseman Ozzie Albies.

After arriving in Atlanta early this season as one of Major League Baseball’s top prospects, Acuna became the first Braves’ player since Hank Aaron in 1954 to collect 15 hits and at least five extra-base hits in his first 11 games. Seven of Acuna’s first 15 hits were extra-base hits, including a pair of home runs. Albies set the National League on its ear in April with nine home runs and a league-leading 12 doubles.

n It’s still early in the season, but it’s time for concern for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have several players underachieving, a few key players on the disabled list, and a team that is already facing a steep uphill climb in the National League’s West Division.

n Figuring that this year’s playoff hunt in the National League promises to be more competitive and exciting than ever, with only three of the league’s 15 teams — the Miami Marlins, Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres — probably out of the picture for at least a wild card spot.

n The best player that most people haven’t heard about is first baseman Jose Abreu, who is plying his trade on the South Side of Chicago as a member of the hapless White Sox. Abreu has driven in at least 100 runs in each of the last four seasons, and over that period of time, he has also averaged over 30 home runs per season.

n After refusing a demotion to the minor leagues, right-handed pitcher Matt Harvey was traded by the New York Mets to the Reds for catcher Devin Mesoraco, a Punxsutawney native.

There’s no doubt that the spotlight will be much dimmer on Harvey in Cincinnati than it was in New York, where he consistently declined after a celebrated career start. The question remains, however, as to whether Harvey — despite throwing four scoreless innings in his Reds’ debut at Dodger Stadium last Friday — can still successfully get major league hitters out with any sort of regularity.

These are dark times for the pitcher who was formerly known as the Dark Knight.

John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com