The last time TSL wrote about the Pittsburgh Pirates, Andrew McCutchen and the boys were trying to turn baseball’s Saigon into a Pennsylvania Paradise.
At the time, Pittsburgh was a respectable 5-6 and optimists believed that maybe, just maybe, the forgotten franchise had enough top ballers to end a baby butt-stinking MLB record for consecutive losing seasons with 20.
It wasn’t a stretch to think that the Pirates — consistently futile in their pursuit of success since Malik Yoba was rocking the baldy and the ashy lips on New York Undercover — could finally break through with a winning season.
Since manager Big Clint Hurdle slid onto the scene, Pittsburgh’s win total increased from 57 wins in ’10 to 79 last season, and the Bucs have been amongst division leaders and had a winning record at the midway point the past two seasons.
Entering this season, expectations were higher than in the past, but when Mama passed that big Bucs jug of Kool-Aid around, nobody was drinking it.
GM Neal Huntington’s philosophical shift from sellers to buyers (he added former Yankees pitcher A.J. Burnett and catcher Russell Martin via free agency) has combined with the fact that, for the first time since Barry Bonds led them to three straight NL East crowns from ’90-’92, the Pirates floss a top 10 MLB stud in McCutchen. This hints at something different about this team.
With half the season done, the Pirates aren’t just hanging on; they are catching major league wreck and sporting baseball’s best record (51-30).
They are riding a nine-game winning streak, and became the first MLB team to reach 50 wins. It’s the first time the Pirates have accomplished that since 1960, when Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente was making his first of 15 All-Star appearances leading the Bucs to the first of two World Series titles (’60 and ’71).
In recent years, referencing old Pirates teams in an effort to find something talk-worthy about the franchise has been commonplace. This season, Pittsburgh’s long-awaited “return to glory” is increasingly becoming the hot topic, and its grapple with respectability can’t be ignored as another tease.
The Pirates possess all of the elements for sustained success, and they won’t have to rely on playing over their heads, or the failure of more-talented squads to get ahead.
In McCutchen (.292 BA, .360 OBP), slugging infielder Pedro Alvarez (20 dingers, 53 RBI) and leftfielder Starling Marte (90 hits), the Pirates have a solid offensive nucleus, but the lineup is not deep.
They rank just 22nd out of 30 teams in batting, but pitching is their great equalizer. Despite battling injuries, Pittsburgh’s staff leads baseball in ERA (3.11), shutouts (12) and its lock-down bullpen, led by closer Jason Grilli, has an MLB-best 32 saves.
Second-year hurler Jeff Locke and Francisco Liriano, both have seven wins and ERAs below 2.30.
As the Pirates put the shift on their losing culture, it’s taking longer for the fans to catch the wave, because they harbor a deep, bitter indifference that one dope first-half won’t cure.
For much of the season, fans weren’t rushing out to PNC Park to immerse themselves in the come-up. Pittsburgh ranks 14th out of 15th in National League attendance. After all, the baseball community, in general, doesn’t hold Pittsburgh accountable for the “Pitt of Hell” that has burned for two decades. But, then, this past weekend, the Pirates played to consecutive sellout crowds at PNC. That’s saying something.
With the way Pittsburgh has come out gunning, they would have to go an unfathomable 29-52 the rest of the way to finish with a losing record and even if their two-game division lead over St. Louis evaporated, the Bucs still hold a 5 ½-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds for the last Wild Card spot.
All things considered, it’s quite simple when you put Pittsburgh’s rise to baseball supremacy in religious terms: “Hell has frozen over."