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COLUMN: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh rivalry needs kick

June 28, 2012
B.J. LISKO - Salem News Sports Editor ( , Salem News

The last time both the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates were this good at the same time, Barry Bonds hats were three sizes smaller and Pete Rose was still adamant he never bet on baseball.

As of Thursday night, both teams had 40 wins and stood first and second in the National League Central. If things stay this way through September it would mark the first time both teams were postseason-bound since they competed in opposing divisions and met in the NLCS in 1990.

The Pirates made it back to the NLCS in both '91 and '92, but since haven't been on the plus side of the ledger in 19 seasons - the longest losing streak in North American professional sports history.

The Reds haven't fared a whole lot better. Cincinnati has finished under .500 in 10 of its last 11 seasons.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly why both teams are where they are. Statistics don't tend to back up their current positions. The Reds are ranked 18th in the majors in batting average. They are 14th in runs scored and just 19th in on base percentage. They have benefited from decent pitching, however, as the team ranks 7th in ERA.

The Pirates are even more of a quandary. The Buccos are 28th in batting average, 29th in runs scored and 30th in on base percentage. Pittsburgh has actually been outscored 278-272. But much like Cincy, Pittsburgh pitching is fifth in ERA, and ninth in batting average against.

Good defense trumps good offense as the cliche goes, but in a 162-game season it's only going to take you so far. At some point, for both teams to remain contenders they're going to have to step it up at the plate, Pittsburgh especially. While it would be fantastic to see both teams continue to win post-All-Star break, a lack of hitting is going to catch up.

On paper, it's far more likely the Reds hang around than the Pirates given the big bats of Joey Votto (.353, 49 runs) and Jay Bruce (17 HR, 51 RBI). To compliment their sluggers, Brandon Phillips and Ryan Hanigan are both hitting in the .280s, and Todd Frazier and Chris Heisey are in the .260s.

The Pirates seemingly have Andrew McCutcheon (.336, 14 HR, 42 runs, 48 RBI) and little else. McCutcheon leads the Bucs in all five major hitting categories and the next highest batting average come from Neil Walker at .263. No other Pirate is batting more than .250.

The Pirates will go as far as their pitching staff takes them. The bright spot is unlike the mirage of 2011, these Pirates look much more solid. James McDonald has quickly developed into a top of the rotation pitcher (7-3, 2.44 ERA) and A.J. Burnett won his eighth-straight start Thursday (9-2, 3.31 ERA). The bullpen has been good, too, with Joel Hanrahan (20 saves) and Jason Grilli (18 holds, 2.05 ERA).

In recent year's past, the Pirates have been sellers come mid-season. This year, they have to be buyers if they're going to seriously contend. If the Bucs add a bat or two, they could be around a lot longer than most people think, and 2012 could become the season Pittsburgh points to as the year the team turned it's fortunes around.

The Reds and Pirates meet again Aug. 3-5 in Cincinnati. They'll also meet towards season's end Sept. 28-30 in Pittsburgh.

Here's hoping that last three-game set means a potential division title for both teams as well as positioning for the playoffs.

It's time this rivalry seriously gets renewed.

E-mail B.J. Lisko at



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