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Pirates lurking in playoff race

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been a disappointment most of this season. And yet, throughout so many down seasons among their quality players, the Pirates are 52-48 and only two games behind the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins, who are tied for the second and final National League wild card spot.

Pittsburgh has been playing steady baseball since the All-Star break, sitting at 6-4 in its last 10 games. The Pirates are starting to be able to rely on its stars, even with former Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen struggling with a .246 average. McCutchen is leading the team with 15 home runs, but the center fielder is yet to catch fire. Should that happen, the Pirates could get on an epic roll.

In the meantime, the Pirates are going because of Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. Marte has come of age, hitting .318 with a .373 on-base percentage to go with 36 stolen bases and 23 doubles. Then there is Polanco, who is making all those who labeled him a top prospect look smart. The outfielder is batting .291 with 13 home runs and 54 RBI, accompanied by 10 stolen bases and a 1.8 Wins Above Replacement.

However, the starting pitching needs to step up if the Pirates are going to jump the Cardinals and Marlins, and perhaps even challenge the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central. Pittsburgh is getting some very quality outings out of Gerrit Cole, who is sporting a 2.78 ERA with 10 quality starts in 15 appearances. Cole has only allowed three home runs in 87.1 innings, showcasing a great ability to keep the ball down and on the ground after contact.

Pittsburgh has an ace in Cole, but the rest of the staff has to prove it can make the leap from bad to average or better. Jonathan Niese was brought in from the New York Mets, hoping to get a starter who could both eat innings and rack up wins. Instead, Niese is sporting a 4.91 ERA with an absolutely brutal 1.54 WHIP. Then there is Francisco Liriano with his skyrocketing ERA of 5.38 ERA and even grosser WHIP of 1.61.

If Pittsburgh wants to make the playoffs for the third year in a row, the Pirates have to go for broke at the trade deadline on Aug. 1 and add another pitcher. The franchise has enough talent in the minor leagues to go get a quality pitcher, whether it is a rental like Rich Hill or a starter for years in the person of Julio Teheran or Sonny Gray.

After losing in each of the past two Wild Card games, Pittsburgh has to take the next step and get deep into October, perhaps even to the Fall Classic. The Pirates have the offense and top-flight starter at the top of the rotation, but more is needed.

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