The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


July 14, 2013

Are Buccos finally on the upswing?

— We want to believe. We really do.

But it’s just so difficult for us to say that, yes, the Pittsburgh Pirates are for real this season.

After all, we got behind them in 2011, when they led the National League Central division after 100 games.

That was before Pittsburghers knew who Jerry Meals was. The umpire quickly became a household name in western Pennsylvania after blowing a call that resulted in the Pirates losing Game 101 – a 19-inning affair in Atlanta.

Meals wasn’t at fault for the next 61 games, but the Pirates fell apart anyway.

In what might have been the worst collapse in baseball history, the team went 19-42 the rest of the way and finished with its 19th consecutive losing season.

It happened again last year. There was nothing as dramatic as Meals’ call at the plate to pin it on, but the Pirates once again got our hopes up only to dash them in August and September. When they were 60-44 and leading the NL wild card race on Aug. 1, it looked like the team was sure to end its North American professional sports record for consecutive losing seasons.

They went on to drop 39 of the next 58 games and fall two wins short of a .500 record.

So you’ll have to excuse diehard Pirates fans if they’re wondering if there are more dog days ahead this summer.

This season is following a pattern similar to the past two. The Pirates seem to have won more games than their collection of talent would allow. After all, they had the best record in baseball at the end of June.

July hasn’t been so kind. Heading into this weekend’s series with the New York Mets, the Pirates had lost six of nine games and doubts again started creeping into the heads of fans.

After two decades of losing, who can blame them?

This team ranks 23rd out of 30 teams in batting average and 26th in runs scored.

Their hitters have struck out more than those on all but two other National League teams.

And they have outscored their opponents by just 45 runs this season while division-leading St. Louis has been 124 runs better than its opponents.

It could very well be another return to reality in the second half of the season. Maybe the Pirates just aren’t as good as their record shows.

But, we’re not ready to throw in the towel, either. Maybe, just maybe, this year is different.

The Pirates went out in the offseason and lured catcher Russell Martin away from the New  York Yankees. He’s provided a veteran presence and been a calming influence for the team’s young pitchers.

They have the franchise’s first superstar in two decades in Andrew McCutchen and a promising young player next to him in the outfield in Starling Marte. They have a legitimate power bat in Pedro Alvarez and a power pitcher in rookie Gerrit Cole.

With Cole joining a pitching rotation that, when healthy, includes veterans A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and Francisco Liriano as well as promising youngster Jeff Locke, there certainly is room for optimism.

Throw in what has been baseball’s best bullpen and a solid defense and it’s no surprise that the Pirates have given up fewer runs than any team in baseball.

Closer Jason Grilli will join McCutchen, Alvarez and Locke in New York on Tuesday for Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, giving the franchise its most representatives since 1981.

After the All-Star break, the Pirates have key series against Cincinnati, Washington and St. Louis coming up before the end of the month. If they can “raise the Jolly Roger” more often than not during that stretch, there’s a chance the Pirates will avoid the turbulent waters that have sunk them in the past, sail right past that 81-win mark and into the playoffs.

We’d be on board with that.

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