Unlikely stars key for Pirates

Wandy Rodriguez (4-2, 3.25 ERA) has a career-best K-BB rate of 3.56 this season. Charles LeClaire/US Presswire

In 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates started the season 54-52 before falling apart in August. Last season, the Pirates started 59-44 before falling apart in August. This season, it's déjà vu all over again so far. Winners of eight of their past 10 games, the Bucs are 26-18, sit tied with the Reds for second place in the National League Central and have moved to a season-best 12th in the ESPN.com Power Rankings. And although no one expected Pittsburgh to keep up its upstart act in '11, and few were expecting it last year, this year might be another story.

"Unlikely stars" isn't a term you hear too often, and with good reason. But if the term applies to anyone in baseball the past two seasons, it's A.J. Burnett. After two seasons with a plus-5.00 ERA, the New York Yankees openly tried to discard Burnett to anyone who wanted him. At a bargain basement price, Neal Huntington & Co. in Pittsburgh took a chance on Burnett, and it has paid off handsomely. Burnett was a revelation last season, and he has been even better so far this season. Three pitchers this season are striking out more than three of every 10 batters they face: Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer and Burnett. Unquestionably the team's best pitcher, Burnett, is bringing stability to a rotation that has rarely had it since the days of Doug Drabek.