As we pass the halfway mark of the long baseball season it is a good time to separate the World Series contenders from the pretenders.
Surprises? There are many, but I would put the Pittsburgh Pirates at the top of my list.
The Pirates, who haven't been to a World Series in 34 years, have the best record in baseball. But the question is, can they hang on through September? At this point in 2012 and 2011, the Pirates looked like a real contender, but they collapsed, ended up with losing records, and once again failed to make the playoffs.
That is not going to happen this season. As of Wednesday morning, Pittsburgh, with a 51-31 record, had a two-game lead over St. Louis in the National League Central. And what is more reassuring to Pittsburgh fans, the Pirates have a 10-game lead in the wild card race.
So mark it down: The Buccos will make the playoffs for the first time since 1992.
Between 1993 and 2012, the hallowed franchise had a run of 20 straight losing seasons and finished last nine times. But the team's success has been building for the last couple of years.
The Pirates have a solid pitching staff, with three young starters boasting a combined 13-1 record to go along with veteran Francisco Liriano (7-3). Only the Cardinals have a better earned run average among their starting rotation. Then there is the closer, Jason Grilli, who leads the NL with 27 saves. You'll see him in the All-Star game next week.
Sports Illustrated's astute Tom Verducci claims the Pirates "have the best defensive team" in the league. "The best team in baseball in turning batted balls into outs," Verducci wrote last week. "No wonder their pitching looks so good."
Pittsburgh is in arguably the toughest division in baseball, with three teams (St. Louis and Cincinnati joining the Pirates) boasting 48 or more victories. Only Atlanta in the NL and Boston, Texas and Oakland in the AL have hit that mark on this Fourth of July. All are certainly playoff contenders.
Incidentally, of those seven teams mentioned, the Pirates ($66 million) and the Athletics ($63 million) have the smallest payrolls. Looks like the managers -- Clint Hurdle in Pittsburgh and Bob Melvin in Oakland -- are doing something right.
On the 2013 season's negative side, the two biggest surprises are Washington in the NL and Toronto in the AL.
Many experts predicted a Nationals-Blue Jays World Series. Both teams went on a spending spree that to date has failed to pay off. Washington trails Atlanta by seven games and Toronto is in last place in the AL East.
But as losing managers like to say: "It's a marathon, not a sprint."
The Pirates have 14 games remaining with St. Louis and nine with Cincinnati. Those 23 contests likely will determine the NL Central title.
Then comes the playoffs and, as any honest Atlanta fan will tell you, that's when decisions by the manager can turn the tide.