Baseball's most surprising team ... the Pirates?

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Baseball's most surprising team ... the Pirates?

From Comcast SportsNet
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- A day before he takes part in the home run derby as part of the All-Star festivities in Kansas City, Andrew McCutchen put on a show for the home fans. McCutchen hit two home runs, Neil Walker homered among his five hits and the Pittsburgh Pirates entered the All-Star break in sole possession of first place following a 13-2 win over the San Francisco Giants on Sunday. McCutchen hit a pair of two-run homers that immediately followed hits by Walker -- one to open the scoring in the first and another to make it 12-2 in the seventh. "I am not going up to bat to hit home runs," McCutchen said. "I am just trying to put good swings on balls and when I do that, depending on where the pitch is and how my swing is, some balls go out." If they don't go out, they at least drop in for a hit of some sort lately for the red-hot McCutchen, who enters the break on a 21-for-38 (.552) tear. He has multiple hits in six of his past nine games and 23 RBIs in his past 19 games. All of his team-high 18 home runs have come in the past two months -- an NL-high 12 have come with runners on base. The long-woeful Pirates have won six of seven and 10 of 12, and no team in the majors has a better record since May 12 than Pittsburgh's 34-19. "We worked hard to get to where we are, and we've earned our way so far," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. A.J. Burnett pitched effectively into the seventh to win his ninth consecutive decision, and Casey McGehee went 3 for 4 with two RBIs for Pittsburgh. The Pirates (48-37) are 11 games over .500 for the first time since 1992 and are in first place at the break for the first time since 1997. The franchise has endured a North American professional sports record 19 consecutive losing seasons. The Pirates have gone 11-1-1 in their past 13 series and have won seven consecutive series at PNC Park. "Seeing what's going on here, it's fun to be a part of it," said Burnett, acquired in an offseason trade from the New York Yankees. The Giants' Tim Lincecum failed to get out of the fourth inning for the second consecutive start, getting charged with six runs on seven hits. The two-time Cy Young Award winner enters the break with a 6.42 ERA that is worst in the majors among qualifying starters. Pablo Sandoval hit a two-run homer for San Francisco, which has lost five of six and seven of nine. Burnett (10-2) retired 13 consecutive Giants batters from the first until the sixth. He was lifted after Sandoval hit his eighth homer with Buster Posey aboard in the seventh. Burnett was charged with two runs on four hits and two walks with five strikeouts in 6 1-3 innings. Burnett improved to 6-0 at home and became the second Pirates pitcher since 1993 to win 10 games prior to the All-star break. Pittsburgh has won each of his past 12 outings. Burnett's winning streak is a career-best. Walker extended his hitting streak to 12 games -- tying a team season high -- with a homer, double and three singles. It was the first five-hit game for a Pirates player since Walker did it July 20, 2010. Walker is hitting .489 (23-for-47) during his streak. "Days like today can happen," said Walker, "but certainly five hits is something that comes around very rarely." Walker hit his sixth home run with nobody on in the third, and the Pirates chased Lincecum (3-10) with a three-run fourth. Burnett's soft liner through the middle with the bases loaded scored McGehee. It was the pitcher's 10th career RBI and first since Aug. 9, 2005, while with Florida. Burnett was the final batter Lincecum would face -- although runs that scored via a Drew Sutton sacrifice fly and Walker single would be charged to him. Lincecum has allowed 69 earned runs -- most in the majors and three more than his total from all of last season. He has allowed 47 earned runs in 47 innings on the road this season. "You never want to say, Hey, I've hit rock bottom,' or anything like that," Lincecum said. "But when things are going as bad as they are right now, you've kind of got to go out there like you've got nothing left to lose. Leave it all out there on the field and what happens, happens." Manager Bruce Bochy said Lincecum will start San Francisco's second game out of the break. He also was emphatic that he has given no thought to removing Lincecum from the rotation. "He's got to put this first half behind him..." Bochy said. "He's got to regroup. We need him. He's got to be determined to turn things around, and have a better second half. "There's not much you can do right now." About the only negative for the Pirates on Sunday was McGehee pulling up lame with a mild left groin strain after swatting a two-run "single" deep into the notch in left-center during the sixth. Pittsburgh entered the day a game up on the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Central. Only Washington has a better record among NL teams. Notes: The Giants had three errors. ... The Pirates' 29-14 home record is the best in the majors. They have won nine of 11 and 14 of 17 at PNC Park. ... Pittsburgh will be on the road for 16 of its first 22 after the break, beginning with three in Milwaukee Friday-Sunday. Manager Clint Hurdle set the order of his rotation to start the unofficial second half: RHP James McDonald, RHP Kevin Correia, Burnett, RHP Jeff Karstens and LHP Erik Bedard. ... San Francisco hosts Houston for a three-game series coming out of the break beginning Friday. The Giants took two of three from the Astros at home June 12-14.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Breaking down the World Series hangover

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Breaking down the World Series hangover

Do the Cubs have a World Series hangover?

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, NBC Sports Bay Area Giants Insider Alex Pavlovic joins CSN's Patrick Mooney to talk about the World Series hangover, how last year's playoff loss lingered in San Francisco, Johnny Cueto's quirks, the legend of Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija's ups and downs.

Plus Kelly Crull, Jeff Nelson and Tony Andracki break down the Cubs’ defensive struggles this year compared to an historic 2016 and how Ian Happ fits into the Cubs’ lineup in both the short and long term.

Listen to the latest episode below:

What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

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USA TODAY

What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

Caleb Swanigan, unsurprisingly, is heading to the NBA.

Last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year announced Wednesday that he’ll pass up the final two seasons of his NCAA eligibility for a paying gig at the professional level, an awesome opportunity for a kid who battled obesity and homelessness to become one of the best basketball players in the country.

But Swanigan’s departure from West Lafayette means a heck of a lot to the Big Ten.

Without the league’s most dominant big man, what becomes of Purdue’s chances at winning a conference title? Similarly, with a weakened — though still strong — group of Boilermakers, what does the Big Ten race look like going into 2017-18?

First, Purdue. Matt Painter’s program is plenty healthy, and while there’s no doubt that losing Swanigan is a big deal, the Boilers got some really good news, too, Wednesday when Vincent Edwards announced he’ll be returning for his senior season. Seven-footer Isaac Haas also made the decision to return to West Lafayette, meaning the towering frontcourt hasn’t been completely decimated just because tha man called “Biggie” is gone.

Purdue will also return Carsen Edwards, who had an impressive freshman campaign, and Dakota Mathias, a terrific defender and 3-point shooter. Two more important pieces — P.J. Thompson and Ryan Cline — are back, as well. And Painter will welcome in freshman Nojel Eastern, a highly touted guard from Evanston.

So the Boilers are still in very good shape. There will be a big magnifying glass on Haas, who despite his physical attributes hasn’t always found consistent on-court success. But there have been plenty of flashes of brilliance from the big man. A big step forward in his game would go a long way in easing the blow of losing Swanigan and could keep Purdue as one of the frontrunners for a conference title.

That brings us to the Big Ten race. Ever since Miles Bridges, the conference’s reigning Freshman of the Year, announced he’d be returning to Michigan State for his sophomore season, the Spartans have been the near-unanimous favorite. Only something like Swanigan deciding to stay at Purdue could’ve changed that. And with Swanigan expectedly heading to the NBA, Michigan State remains the preseason pick to win the conference crown.

Like any good year in the Big Ten, though, there will be challengers.

But Michigan State is the popular choice to win it because of Tom Izzo’s insane 2016 recruiting class is returning completely intact: Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford are all back. And Izzo brings in one of the top 2017 recruits in forward Jaren Jackson.

But Sparty isn’t the only one with an impressive returning group. Purdue’s experienced roster has already been covered. Northwestern, a surprise contender in 2016-17, should be even better as Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey enter their fourth year playing together. Dererk Pardon, a shot-blocking whiz at center, is also back, as is sharp-shooter Aaron Falzon, who sat out the 2016-17 season with an injury after starting during his freshman year in 2015-16.

There will be big shoes to fill for some perennial contenders like Maryland — which must replace Melo Trimble — and Michigan, which watched eligibility run out on Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin before D.J. Wilson decided to head to the professional ranks Wednesday. But those teams have plenty of talent returning, too. The Terps will have all three of their fab freshmen — Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter — back for sophomore seasons, while the Wolverines have Moe Wagner back in the fold alongside Xavier Simpson and Duncan Robinson, among others.

And what of last year’s shocking contender, Minnesota? The Golden Gophers didn’t lose too much this offseason and will return almost every main player from last year’s 24-10 squad: Amir Coffey, Nate Mason, Reggie Lynch, Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer and Eric Curry.

There are up-and-comers to think about, too, such as last year’s freshman-heavy squads at Iowa and Penn State. And could new head coaches Brad Underwood and Archie Miller make instant splashes at Illinois and Indiana, respectively?

If it sounds a little too much like the annual coach speak that “any team can win on any night” in the Big Ten, that’s because there is a good deal of truth to that oft-used phrase.

There are definitely tiers to this thing, though. Even without Swanigan, Purdue is still in one of those upper tiers. But there might be no team besides Michigan State at the very top of the heap, something underscored by Swanigan turning pro.