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For Pirates, it's a start worth treasuring

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Cheers and Jeers,Sports,John Keim

There's no need to pity a Pittsburgh sports fan, not when you consider that the Steelers have won two Super Bowl titles in the past dozen years and the Penguins have won a Stanley Cup in that same period.

Then there's the Pirates, who haven't finished .500 or better since 1992. In fact, they haven't finished within eight games of .500 in the last decade.

Yes, the Nationals are a surprise first-place team, but perhaps the biggest first-half surprise is the first-place Pirates, who sit atop the NL Central with a 48-37 record. The Cardinals and Reds both are within 21Ú2 games of the Pirates, so finishing first won't be easy. But after 20 years of futility, a winning record would be an accomplishment if nothing else.

Keep in mind that the Pirates were labeled a surprise first-half team last season as well at 47-43 only to finish 72-90.

Can they keep it up? It will be difficult considering they score just a little more than four runs a game (while allowing 3.7). They have a legitimate ace in James McDonald, and A.J. Burnett is 10-2 with a modest 3.68 ERA. Beyond that, there's nothing special. Offensively, Andrew McCutchen (.362 average, 18 homers, 60 RBIs) is among the MVP front-runners but needs help (possibly Carlos Quentin or Justin Upton). But their bullpen, led by closer Joel Hanrahan, is excellent, with a 14-6 record and 2.63 ERA.

With 16 of their first 22 games on the road after the break, they will be tested to stay in first. The Pirates would be an excellent postseason story. But there's still a long way before that becomes reality.

- John Keim

jkeim@washingtonexaminer.com

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