O's Davis, Pirates baseball's biggest surprises

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WALLA WALLA — With the Major League Baseball season past its halfway mark and the annual Midsummer Classic right around the corner, the best story so far is a toss-up. Chris Davis or the Pittsburgh Pirates?

Davis is the Baltimore Orioles slugging first baseman, a 27-year-old veteran of five seasons who is in the midst of a breakout campaign that not even the wisest Fantasy League owner could have ever predicted.

Through Sunday’s games, Davis was leading the American League in home runs with 33, was second in runs batted in with 85 and third in batting average at .320. That’s in 88 games and 319 at-bats.

Remarkably, Davis set career standards last season with 33 homers and 85 RBIs in 515 at-bats over 139 games. Prior to that, his best year was 2009 when he hit 21 home runs and drove in 59 runs.

While Davis has hinted at a power surge in prior years, this year’s batting average is the bigger surprise. He’s a career .269 hitter who has never hit better than .285 in his first five seasons.

There’s no reason to believe that the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder is traveling the same path then-Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera trod. Cabrera’s average leaped from .255 in 2010 to .305 in 2011 and to .346 last season before a failed drug test led to a 50-game suspension that ended his season.

As of right now, Davis is all that stands between another Cabrera and a second straight consecutive American League triple crown. Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera once again leads the AL in hitting with a .358 average and in RBIs with 90, but his 28 homers are second behind Davis.

More importantly as far as Davis is concerned, his red-hot bat has helped the Orioles stay in contention for a return to the American League playoffs. As of Sunday’s games, the O’s were 49-40, 4 1/2 games behind Boston and tied for second in the East Division.

Which brings us to the Pirates, who share the lead in the National League Central with a 53-34 record and a winning percentage of .609 that is the best in all of baseball. The Cardinals are also 53-34.

Unlike the Cardinals, however, who have enjoyed their share of playoff appearances and World Series titles in recent years, the Pirates are bidding for their first winning season since 1992. That’s 20 years of futility.

The Pirates last made the playoffs in 1992 when they lost to the Braves in the National League Championship Series. Pittsburgh was also beaten by Atlanta in the 1991 NLCS and by the Reds in 1990.

The Pirates last played in the World Series in 1979 when Willie Stargell’s “We Are Family” squad outlasted the Orioles in seven games for the fourth world championship in the franchise’s storied history that dates back to 1882.

Led by all-star Andrew McCutchen and a cast of no-names, the Pirates have made strides in the past two seasons but were unable to sustain their momentum.

In 2011, the Pirates were 46-37 as of July 8 but finished 79-83. On the same date last year, Pittsburgh was 53-34 but managed just 19 wins the rest of the way to finish 72-90.

Las Vegas oddsmakers allowed back in March that the 2013 Pirates would win 77 games. They’ve since revived those odds, putting the Pirates, if you can believe this, ahead of the Yankees on a list of likely playoff qualifiers.

That’s turning the baseball world upside down.

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