Sunday Insider: Here come Pirates, Reds

  • Updated: June 17, 2012 - 4:55 AM

They are next on the Twins' road schedule, and they are on the rise in the National League Central.

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Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen

Photo: Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

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Interleague play sends the Twins on the road this week to two destinations they haven't seen in a while, two cities along the Ohio River that have been together in the National League since 1887.

With all that tradition, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are home to some of the sport's longest-suffering fans. The Pirates haven't finished above .500 since 1992. The Reds haven't won a playoff game since 1990. But this year, in both cities, hope is in the air again.

During the trip, the Twins will see two of baseball's brightest stars -- Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen and Reds first baseman Joey Votto. They'll face two of the NL's best starting pitchers, in Pittsburgh's James McDonald (2.32 ERA) and Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto (2.46).

They could see two of the game's hardest-throwing closers, too: Pirates righthander Joel Hanrahan and Reds lefthander Aroldis Chapman. These two teams have taken on the passionate personalities of their managers, in Pittsburgh's Clint Hurdle and Cincinnati's Dusty Baker.

On Tuesday, the Twins make their first appearance at Pittsburgh's delightful PNC Park since 2006. The Pirates teased their fans last year, holding first place in late July before finishing with a 19-43 thud. They bolstered their starting pitching staff with two reclamation projects -- A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard -- and entered Saturday with the fourth-best ERA in the majors, at 3.52.

That's how you explain their success this year, despite ranking last in the majors in runs scored, at 3.24 per game. Well, that and the fact McCutchen entered Saturday leading all NL center fielders with a .321 batting average, .382 on-base percentage and .543 slugging percentage.

Pittsburgh fans are buying in, as attendance is up nearly 3,000 fans per game over last season. In Cincinnati, it's up by more than 3,500.

The Twins haven't been to Cincinnati since 2000, so they've never visited Great American Ballpark, which is in its 10th season.

The Reds won the NL Central in 2010 but got swept by the Phillies in the Division Series, just as they'd been swept in their previous postseason appearance, in 1995.

Last year, Cincinnati was one of baseball's biggest disappointments, returning most of its core talent and still finishing 79-83. But the Reds had an aggressive offseason, trading for Padres pitcher Mat Latos and Cubs reliever Sean Marshall, and signing free agent closer Ryan Madson.

Madson was lost to Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery, but Marshall stepped into the closer's role, and now that job belongs to Chapman, a Cuban defector whose fastball once hit 105 miles per hour. He entered Saturday with 58 strikeouts -- in 33 innings.

Votto won MVP honors in 2010 and finished sixth in the voting last year. He entered Saturday batting .359, leading the NL in doubles (28), walks (52), on-base percentage (.484) and slugging percentage (.654).

He's part of a potent lineup with All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips, right fielder Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier, who has taken over third base with Scott Rolen on the disabled list.

The Twins have heard these story lines from afar, but now they can visit these two historic river cities and take a firsthand look.

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