Let's not mince words about this. There's no beating around the bush. There's no way to sugarcoat it. There's no nice way to say it.
In recent years the Pittsburgh Pirates have been dismal. For almost the past 20 years the Pirates have been to Ohio fans the equivalent of the Cleveland Browns.
They simply haven't won. There's usually an excitement around the team to start each season with a story ark reading tantamount to a fresh, young crop of talent that if things fall into place, the team will be competitive. But if they don't, which has unfortunately been the case for Pirates fans, it has quickly turned disastrous.
Last season the Pirates set new lows. They lost 105 games and became the first ever professional sports franchise, as in any of the top four professional sports, to have a losing season 18 years straight.
Last season the Pirates suffered a 20-0 defeat at the hands of Milwaukee in a series where they were
As much as Ohioans moan and groan about Pittsburgh, and it is warranted to a point with championships coming from the Steelers and Penguins, Ohio fans have nothing on Pirates die hards.
But you see, that's what makes 2011 so special.
The Pirates are over .500. They haven't been over .500 this deep into a season since 1999. And all that preseason story arc, for now, is panning out. The team just won yet another series, taking two of three from a team with a $161.8 million payroll, and American League darlings the Boston Red Sox.
The Buccos are 39-38 right now. They're in a division that is wide open. The Cardinals are struggling, as are the Brewers. The Reds, for all their talent and coming off a postseason appearance with essentially the same lineup, haven't been able to find their footing either.
All bodes very well for the Pirates who have improved on practically every level.
Case in point the defense. Last year the Pirates were among the worst defensive teams in the majors, and their record reflected it.
This year they are among the top 10 in baseball according to the UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating).
Andrew McCutchen leads the way with his glove as well as at the plate, and the rest of the team has followed suit.
McCutcheon's play has been outstanding. He's batting .285 with 10 home runs, 39 RBIs and an on base percentage of .388.
While no one other player stands out, they're doing enough to win and picking up the slack for one another.
The pitching staff, for a Pittsburgh pitching staff compared to the last dozen or so years, is above and beyond anything Pirate fans have witnessed and the record crowds at PNC park in recent weeks are indicative of their success and the excitement they're bringing to the hill.
Jeff Karstens has an ERA of 2.66 and batters are a meager .151 against him with runners in scoring position.
Paul Maholm is holding batters to .250 this year - a drastic improvement to his career average of .308, and if he could get more run support the Pirates would be much more than one game over .500.
Joel Hanrahan is likely an all-star with his 22-for-22 mark in save opportunities and 1.24 ERA.
Some argue the Pirates are playing above their capabilities, and it's hard to refute given their recent track record especially in the second half of the last few seasons. However, in a division that seems ripe for the taking with no clear cut power, and if the team keeps winning series that oddsmakers aren't giving them a prayer in winning - like Boston - expect the Pirates to be in the hunt this season for the long haul.
Cleveland eat your heart out.
E-mail B.J. Lisko at firstname.lastname@example.org