With Albert Pujols out, why not Pittsburgh Pirates?

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One of the best things about baseball is currently going on in the NL Central where we have four teams all within four games of each other for the division lead.

Some see the daily grind of a long season and slow movement of action on the field as tedious, but it’s what happens during those times that accentuates the sport so much more over all others.

Baseball has the history that can always be referred to and debated. Every day opinions change by what happens on the field. You’ve got certain factions rooting for the their mega-powerhouse teams to continue to roll and then you’ve got the teams that every so often capture baseball fans’ hearts everywhere with their overachieving play out of nowhere for a season.

In the NL Central we have the Brewers, Cardinals and Reds that have battled it out for playoff positions the last few seasons, but coming along the outside of this four-horse race is Pittsburgh.

The Pirates opened the season as 300-1 long shots to win the World Series and 125-1 to win the pennant. We may be getting way ahead of ourselves with talk of them possibly competing for those type of lofty goals, but that’s the beauty of the game that allows us to speculate for so long about a team’s chances.

The rest of the nation is slowly coming to the notion this year’s version of the Bucs isn’t so bad, but the fans in Pittsburgh are fired up – having sold out five games. This is a monumental achievement for the city in a season that isn’t even half over.

Instead of finding reasons why the Pirates can’t win the division such as “they don’t have a true leader offensively” or “their starting pitching won’t hold up,” how about some reasons why any of the three other teams may fail?

The Cardinals have the winning attitude led by manager Tony LaRussa, but yet have only made the playoffs once in five years after taking the 2006 World Series. Their offensive leader for the last decade, Albert Pujols, will be out until early August.

Even when Pujols does come back, he may not be 100 percent, which could be bad news considering he wasn’t playing like the Albert we knew while healthy this season.

Lance Berkman, who kept the Cardinals alive during Pujols slump, is hitting .216 in June. Colby Rasmus carried the team early as well, but he’s also hitting close to the Mendoza line at .208. Their most consistent hitter for the month has been Ryan Theriot (.295) which definitely isn’t a positive.

The St. Louis starting pitching has been decent with Chris Carpenter showing some signs of life his last two starts. However, the bullpen is still a major question mark in short and long relief. Fernando Salas took over the closer duties in late April and converted 10 consecutive save opportunities, but when the June swoon came around, Salas blew two of four save chances and took two other losses.

The Brewers have the best home record in baseball (29-11), but why are they so bad on the road (15-24)? They’ve got a great starting pitching staff, a tremendous lineup filled with boppers and speed, but something is missing from that team.

Maybe it’s all those road losses that glaringly stick out, or possibly the 11 blown save opportunities. They still are the team to beat in the division and do close out their season with six straight home games, three of which are against the Pirates who they have owned.

The Reds seem to have more holes than any of the four teams because they aren’t consistent. They go through stretches where no one hits. Their lead-off hitter has already struck out over 100 times and only Johnny Cueto has been a reliable starting pitcher.

Francisco Cordero has been a lights-out closer, but holding the lead and getting to him has been a problem. Their entire pitching staff has the third worst OPS (.736) allowed in the NL and because of that, their games are always entertaining whoever they play. But it continually puts them in a bad position that most good teams don’t find themselves in.

The Pirates don’t do anything great, everything about their team is average to slightly above average, but their starting rotation has allowed them to stay in games and wait for one of the nightly stars to emerge with a big hit. Against their NL Central rivals they are 16-10 this season with the bulk of those losses coming from Milwaukee.

They probably won’t make the playoffs, but they are making this season much more entertaining with their efforts. Most baseball fans, even those for the big market teams, can’t help but be excited and root somewhat for one of the oldest franchises in baseball finally showing some life. For bettors, only Washington and Arizona have shown a better money-line record than Pittsburgh (+960) this season.

And if they’re still around in September, you never know. What team will have more pressure – the one not expected to be there or those who were that are being pushed by a team that hasn’t had a winning record or playoff appearance since 1992?

Mighty Nats

Washington is having a fantastic June going 17-7 with a stretch of winning 13 of their last 15 games. Most of that can be attributed to Adam LaRoche getting hurt and Michael Morse taking over duties at first base.

Morse leads the team in batting average (.300) and home runs (14) and has done most of that damage since May 23. The Nationals are still 8½ games behind the Phillies, but the future looks bright for the Nationals with Davey Johnson as the new manager after Jim Riggleman bailed on his team last Thursday right in the middle of their winning streak.

Johnson, best remembered for winning the 1986 World Series with the Mets, has always gotten the most out of young talent. Over the next two seasons, not many teams in baseball can say they have more prospects ready for the majors than the Nationals.

Gee whiz!

With Roy Halladay’s win on Sunday, the Phillies are now 9-1 at home when he takes the mound to go along with their 5-2 mark on the road. That is to be expected from a reigning Cy Young award winner (10-3 on the season), but what about the things Dillon Gee (8-1) has been doing for the Mets. He’s started 11 games, most of them getting plus-money, and the Mets have won 10.

The 25-year-old Gee, from Cleburne near Fort Worth, beat his state’s Rangers on Sunday. The Texan has found himself as the leader for Rookie of the Year just a notch above the Nationals’ second baseman Danny Espinosa.

Gee is not a dominating pitcher like Halladay. His fastball barely reaches 90 mph and he uses control as a main weapon to get batters out, but the results are just as effective.

Cahill is back!

I think we can start putting the A’s back into betting equations when Trevor Cahill (8-5) takes the mound following his last two starts. Cahill had fallen out of favor with bettors when he went through a stretch where Oakland lost seven straight starts with him on the mound.

His last two starts have looked like the Cahill we remember from April and last week he shut down the Giants 2-1 and the Phillies 4-1.

At Philadelphia, Cahill was a chunky +190 against Roy Oswalt. Incidentally, Oswalt was put on the DL again immediately following the game due to back problems

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