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Kovacevic: Could this be real? |

Kovacevic: Could this be real?

Christopher Horner
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett pumps his fist to the crowd as he receives a standing ovation while exiting the game in the seventh inning against the San Francisco Giants on at PNC Park. Burnett won his 10th game of the season to lead the Pirates' rotation. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett delivers against the Giants on Sunday July 8, 2012 at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

A.J. Burnett walked off the PNC Park mound, the ball now in Clint Hurdle’s hand, his work done. And really, with an eight-run lead, so was the Pirates’ work for this are-you-kidding-me first half of the Major League Baseball season.

The 28,954 on hand, clearly aware that this is The Man on this team, stood and roared, loudly and lovingly.

In turn, Burnett raised his right arm.

Not for a tip of the cap.

Not even for a fist-pump.

No, that fist stayed up, triumphantly, dramatically.

Even amid Neil Walker’s five hits, Andrew McCutchen’s two blasts and the 13-2 rout of the Giants, I can’t imagine anything more powerfully punctuating how far this team has come than that gesture from that player.

“I don’t know what got into me,” Burnett told me afterward. “I looked around … the fans cheering for me, for us … they brought it out. I’m proud to take the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates. I’m proud, man. I’m proud to pitch for these players, these fans. I could …”

He paused.

“I’m not really going to do a good job of putting this into words. I’m just happy to be a Pittsburgh Pirate.”

It really is beyond words.

The Pirates — the Pirates — are 48-37 and in first place heading into the All-Star break.

Is this Bizarro baseball?

Or could this be real?

Let’s break it down …

Hope: McCutchen will win the Home Run Derby and All-Star MVP, elevate the league-leading .362 average he’s taking into the break, double his home runs to 36 and his RBI to 120, become the franchise’s first league MVP since Barry Bonds, and, in his free time, uncover the secret to smoother traffic flow through our tunnels.

Reality: McCutchen starred in the first half of 2011, too, only to drag along at .219 the rest of the way. But his amazing consistency now – he’s gone hitless in back-to-back games once all year – has anything but a fluky feel. He’s ripping the seams off the ball, and he’s spreading to all fields better than any point in his career. Witness both home runs Sunday to right-center.

Some comeuppance is due, but … come on.

Hope: Pedro Alvarez has arrived. This time for real.

Reality: If it’s just .250 with 25-30 home runs, so be it.

Hope: The offense as a whole will look far more like June/July (.279 average, 50 home runs) than April/May (.181 average, 38 home runs.

Reality: Sorry, not there yet.

It’s heartening, for sure, to see Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee erupt, to see Walker soar from .256 on June 26 to .291 after those five very Walker-like screamers Sunday.

But the overall numbers are exorbitant for a group of this pedigree, and that’s more likely to regress – if not crash down – than any other facet.

Hope: Starling Marte.

Reality: Yes.

Hope: The starting pitching will remain the anchor.

Reality: It had better.

Burnett and James McDonald have been twin horses, Jeff Karstens is healthy again, and Kevin Correia hasn’t been nearly as bad as some fans fuss.

Erik Bedard is a legit worry. In addition to being a weak-link 4-10, he’s spent four of the past five Julys on the disabled list. Something’s bound to ache soon.

Rudy Owens, anyone?

Hope: The bullpen will stay the best in baseball, which is exactly where it stands at the break with a 2.66 ERA. It will also improve upon being 38-1 when leading after six innings, 41-0 after seven, 43-0 after eight.

Reality: Asking a lot, huh?

Joel Hanrahan has 23 saves in 26 chances, but his strikeouts are down and the slider has lost some bite. Jason Grilli has been sensational, too, but there’s zero precedent for that over his long career.

The rest have been solid — if you’re bashing Chris Resop, you’re not watching — but few things in baseball are more fickle than relief. And it’s gone way too smoothly out there.

Hope: More magic from Michael McKenry, Drew Sutton and … who’s next?

Reality: A team built like this must have its full complement of Polcovich-esque surprises.

Hope: Neal Huntington will get what the Pirates need, preferably an outfielder with pop.

Reality: He has a better chance of that now that the offense bought him time. And I still believe it’s essential that he does, even with the recent surge, even with Marte coming.

Huntington told me Sunday isn’t ruling out more pitching, too: “Our focus is to exhaustively search for all opportunities to add to this club.”

Good. The Pirates are up, the division down, the big spenders rebuilding. This chance is gold.

Hope: No collapse.

Reality: As Walker wonderfully explained, “Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry won’t let that happen. They’re in charge of this pitching staff, they’re setting the tone and getting it done. That goes for all of us. The days of getting down after a tough loss or falling apart with a little losing streak … that’s over. We take the field every single day believing we should win.”

Hope: Um … playoffs?

Reality: Let’s go back to Walker: “To me, the biggest difference in this team isn’t an intangible. It’s just that we’re a better team. We have more talent, we’re more experienced, and we’re deeper.”

Right. A better team.

And that takes hope out of the equation. Which is exactly where you want it.

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