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The Early Lead
Posted at 12:57 PM ET, 07/19/2011

Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians are unlikely first place teams in NL, AL Central


Pittsburgh Pirates All-Stars Joel Hanrahan (52), Andrew McCutchen, center, and Kevin Correia (29) lead a team trying to win its first division title since 1992. (Gene J. Puskar - AP)

It’s July 19 and the Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place in the National League Central.

That is not typo. And neither is this.

It’s July 19 and the Cleveland Indians are in first place in the American League Central.

That’s right: two teams that have wallowed in the depths of the MLB standings over the last several years — and in the case of Pittsburgh, the last two decades — are atop their respective divisions after the All-Star break and both may be buyers at the upcoming trade deadline.

Open your window and you may see pigs taking flight.

The Pirates (50-44) last won a division title in 1992, when they were still slotted in the East, while the Indians (51-44) last won the Central in 2007 after contending atop the AL annually in the mid- to late-90s.

But for two teams with dismal pitching a year ago and few notable names at the plate, the speedy transformations of both ballclubs is nothing short of remarkable.

For the Pirates, the turnaround is stunning and long overdue for suffering fans in the Steel City. Pittsburgh — which last finished with a winning record in 1992 — has not been in first place this late in a season since 1997. With a 57-105 mark last season, the Buccos set a new record for consecutive losing seasons by a North American professional sports franchise with 18.

Monday night’s game against the Cincinnati Reds might be a sign that luck has finally turned in the Pirates’ favor. An 83-minute weather delay helped Pittsburgh starter Charlie Morton work his way out of a two-out, bases-loaded jam in the first inning and the Pirates earned a 2-0 victory.

Has Pittsburgh actually become a legitimate contender seemingly overnight? Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips is a believer:

“The Pirates have had our number all year, man. I don’t know what it is, but I’ll tell you one thing: They’re a good team, they’re for real.”

The Pirates’ play this summer has fans dusting off their caps and coming out to PNC Park to make sure its not all a mirage.

Said Hanrahan in a USA Today story from Monday:

“Baseball is alive again in Pittsburgh. The real baseball fans have been sitting at home, cussing out their TV, cussing out the Pirates. Now they don’t feel embarrassed, they can come out to our games.
“Before, fans would come to our games and all you’d see is Steeler shirts and Penguins hats. Now fans are all wearing Pirates’ hats and Pirates’ shirts. It was just a matter of getting them out of hiding.”


Lou Marson (6) and the Indians are having fun again in Cleveland. (Genevieve Ross - AP)

In Cleveland, Indians skipper Manny Acta is interacting with fans on a daily basis through his Twitter account, where his detractors are quickly becoming supporters. Monday the Asdrubal Cabrera and the Indians swept a double-header against Minnesota to take a one-game lead on Detroit.

Will either team be able to maintain its pace and clinch a division crown? That remains to be seen, and both teams face challenging schedules going forward. But the pieces may be in place.

The Pirates, who finished last in the majors in ERA last season at 5.00, currently sit at eighth with a 3.42 ERA, led by Jeff Karstens (2.34), Paul Maholm (3.06), Morton (3.62) and closer Joel Hanrahan (1.27, 26 saves). Cleveland, has seen its team ERA drop from 4.30 to 4.00 and have also shown their ability to pile up runs. And both teams could be looking to upgrade. The Pirates are rumored to be ogling Josh Willingham of the Oakland A’s and Houston Astros All-Star Hunter Pence.

Will either team win its division this fall? Both? What do you think?

By  |  12:57 PM ET, 07/19/2011

 
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