By Dan Walk
1 When it comes to historic streaks or landmark moments in sports, we often use the phrase “they were the first to do that since ...” When it comes to the Pirates, that phrase hasn’t been used much in two decades — or at least not in a positive light. But this year’s team has a different feel — it is 51-30 at the season’s midpoint and has the majors’ best record at this point in the year for the first time since 1992. And the Pirates’ nine-game winning streak is their longest since 2004. George W. Bush was running for his second term as president in 2004, and Bush’s father was president the last time Pittsburgh had the best record in baseball at this point in the season.
2 Sunday’s Pirates win over Milwaukee is exactly what makes this year’s team different. Some 6 1/2 hours after the first pitch, Pittsburgh won 2-1 in 14 innings. The bullpen did it once again, throwing 12 scoreless innings and allowing just two hits with zero walks. The bullpen’s success is a major component of the Pirates’ great half-season. It gives the starting rotation a belief that if they get through six innings with the lead, a victory is in hand. For the offense, no matter how much it struggles early in each game, it’s always one big hit away from doing enough to win — just like Sunday.
3 But Pirates fans can attest to the fact that the team has been here before — or at least in a similar capacity in 2012 and 2011. Pittsburgh was well on its way to a winning record and even a playoff berth the last two years, only to go a combined 37-78 from Aug. 1 those seasons. What the Pirates have this year is a consistent pitching staff that won’t falter this year, plus one of the best bullpens in baseball. Pittsburgh will win at least 81 games for the first time in 21 years and expect a playoff berth as well, Pirates fans.
4 The Indians have had their fair share of success through one half of this season. They just accomplished their first four-game sweep at the Chicago White Sox since their last world championship season in 1948. It also put the Tribe in a virtual tie with Detroit atop the AL Central. What impressed me the most during Cleveland’s sweep was that three of the four wins came against left-handed starting pitchers. The Tribe’s biggest problem last year was hitting against lefties — they hit .234 against them, fourth-worst in baseball. Cleveland’s batting .261 against southpaws this year and that difference shows in the team’s record.
5 Helping the Indians so much lately is a guy who you can argue has become the best second baseman in at least the American League — Jason Kipnis. We have all become Kipnises to one of the hottest hitters in baseball. Kipnis hit .419 with 25 RBIs in June. That’s quite a contrast from the .200 he hit during a injury-filled April. And his average wasn’t much better entering June at .238. He reached base in every game in June. What’s more, his on-base percentage of .517 in June means he was on base more than every other plate appearance.
6 Even though the MLB All-Star game is next week, this past weekend was what amounts to the midpoint of the season with every team passing 81 games played. Much has to be decided, considering five of the six divisions’ second-place teams are 2 1/2 games back or fewer entering Monday’s action. When glancing upon the standings, it’s easy to veer over to the NL West, which has every team within four games of first place. It’s an average, yet competitive division that any team can win right now.
7 The Patriots did the right thing by releasing Aaron Hernandez fewer than two hours after he was arrested in connection with an alleged murder last week. The Cowboys, meanwhile, just don’t get it with defensive lineman Josh Brent, who recently failed a second drug test and is headed back to jail. This is the same player who was charged with intoxication manslaughter resulting in the death of best friend and teammate Jerry Brown.
8 The Brooklyn Nets remained in the national sports spotlight again this week, not too long after announcing Jason Kidd would step in as their head coach with no experience. Brooklyn traded for aging future Hall-of-Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierece, but the team successfully traded away its future in doing so. The Nets have officially entered championship-or-bust mode in 2013-14, similar to when the Lakers added Karl Malone and Gary Payton during the 2003-04 season. Los Angeles lost to the Pistons in five games during that season’s finals. Brooklyn will be lucky enough to reach the conference finals next year.
9 It was interesting to see the number of teams crooning over 2007 NBA draft top pick Greg Oden, who has battled injuries his whole career and hasn’t played a minute since Dec. 5, 2009. Among the teams interested are the Spurs, Heat, Cavs, Celtics and Grizzlies. Oden is just 25, but at what point will teams understand he doesn’t have the knees to play a whole season?
10 Thursday’s Fourth of July holiday will surely present a ton of fireworks, but the real explosiveness comes Saturday when Anderson Silva defends his middleweight championship against undefeated Chris Weidman at UFC 162. Though Silva hasn’t lost in 7 1/2 years, Weidman has the wrestling skills make things interesting. But above all else, Weidman isn’t scared of the aura that surrounds “The Spider.” And we all know what happens when you fight Silva scared; the main event of UFC 112 is excellent proof of that. That said, the only way Weidman — or anyone, for that matter — has a chance of beating Silva is by staying in his face or on top of him for 25 minutes. Silva has the best hands in the sport. One second of separation could end Weidman’s upset hopes.
The preceding was The Walk Talk 10, which runs in the Tribune's sports section every Tuesday. Assistant news editor Dan Walk can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.