The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local Sports

July 18, 2013

Pirates promising again, but can they seal the deal?

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Pirates are used to this part, the one where they spend the first half of the season stunning the baseball world with their play. Call it a byproduct of two decades of mediocrity.

Yet promising starts in 2011 and 2012 ended up in an all too familiar place, with the team under .500 after cratering under the pressure of a pennant race.

The freefalls were painful, yet closer Jason Grilli insists they were an important part of the growth process for a franchise learning how to win. Still, even the perpetually optimistic Grilli knows a third disappearing act is unacceptable.

“The time’s now,” Grilli said. “There’s no more development.  It’s time to win.”

It’s a message echoed from all corners of the clubhouse, from veterans like the 36-year-old Grilli to 25-year-old revelation Jeff Locke to star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen to perpetually optimistic manager Clint Hurdle. All understand the club’s best record at the All-Star break (56-37) in 37 years will be rendered a tantalizing footnote if Lucy pulls the football away from Charlie Brown one more time.

“Nobody out there is satisfied,” Hurdle said last week. “I know I’m not satisfied.”

Hurdle may have as much – if not more – to prove than his players. Though he led the Colorado Rockies to the World Series in 2007, his post All-Star break as a manager is just 292-362.

Yet Hurdle, who sends out daily missives on the power of positivity, insists his team is wary but confident.

They begin the second half of the season in Cincinnati tonight eager to show they’re not ready to become the 2013 version of Icarus, the character from Greek mythology who tried to escape the island of Crete by constructing wings made of feather and wax. Icarus nearly made it, but disregarded his father’s order to not fly too close to the sun. The wax melted under the heat, and Icarus came plummeting back to earth.

Pittsburgh has no such plans to do the same, and there’s a different vibe pulsating through the dugout this summer. The only place Pittsburgh’s play isn’t a surprise is in the Pirates’ dugout. It’s why Grilli didn’t get too worked up when “Sports Illustrated” put the fiery, emotional leader on the cover this week, the first time a Pirate has made the front page of the magazine since Barry Bonds did it 21 years ago.

“These are things that you can really get caught up in and I’m not that guy,” Grilli said. “I’m here and I’m doing well because my teammates are succeeding too and they’re helping me be successful.”

And doing it in a grown-up way.

The youthful “Zoltan” signs the team used as a touchstone last year – a tongue-in-cheek nod to the slacker comedy “Dude Where’s My Car?” – now only pop up occasionally. And while Grilli has nicknamed the bullpen “The Shark Tank” because of its tenacity (a moniker that has caught on so well a fan donated an actual shark tank that now sits a few steps from Grilli’s locker) the Pirates are playing with a maturity they lacked even a year ago.

They showcased it early after stumbling to a 1-5 start the first week of the season. All they’ve done since is put together the best record in baseball to remain a nagging presence behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. And when the cracks in the foundation appeared to start showing just before the break during a four-game losing streak, the Pirates responded with a three straight wins to put talk of “the Collapse III” to rest. At least for now.

“We’re going to lose some games,” ace A.J. Burnett said. “We’re going to lose a couple. We’ve got to keep the losing streaks lower and the winning streaks higher. That’s the good thing about this rotation. You’ve got five guys that can turn around at any time and stop the bleeding.”

He’s not kidding. Locke propelled himself from fringe starter to All-Star in three months after going 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA in the first half. Francisco Liriano revived his sagging career by regaining the form that made him one of the best young arms in the game before having Tommy John surgery in 2007.

Charlie Morton has bounced back from the same procedure and been effective if not dominant. And former No. 1 pick Gerrit Cole gave Pittsburgh a needed jolt when he arrived with his triple-digit fastball in tow last month.

The Pirates lead the majors with a 3.09 ERA and 13 shutouts, remarkable numbers that have allowed them to stalk the Cardinals for the last six weeks even as the offense struggled to find a rhythm. The combination of setup man Mark Melancon and Grilli (whose 29 saves lead the NL) have turned most games into seven-inning affairs. The Pirates are 46-1 when leading going into the eighth. Their mere presence on the mound has a ripple effect on the rest of the team.

“It makes it easy knowing that they’re doing what they’re doing,” McCutchen said. “We know more times than not they’re going to save it for us, keep us in the game. It makes it easier when you go out there in seven, eight, nine innings knowing that we have a good chance of keeping the lead.”

McCutchen, however, is also acutely aware the offense needs to take some of the pressure off. The Pirates rank 26th in batting average and runs and are hitting an abysmal .229 with runners in scoring position. Where critics see a weakness, they see potential. The way they look at it, they’re a game back of the Cardinals and they aren’t even scoring.

“It shows we’ve got things we’ve got to work on,” McCutchen said. “And that’s all we’re worried about.

“We see room for improvement, and that’s what drives us.”

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Local Sports
  • Penguins 0421 Penguins finish hot to grab 2-1 series lead

    Brandon Sutter, Lee Stempniak and Jussi Jokinen scored in a span of 2:13 of the third period to revive the Penguins from yet another two-goal deficit in a 4-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night.

    April 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Pirates 0421 Pirates walk off against Reds to halt home skid

    Ike Davis became the first player to hit grand slams for different teams in the same April, and Neil Walker had a winning run single with two outs in the ninth inning as the Pittsburgh Pirates twice overcame deficits to beat the Reds 6-5 Monday night.
    Pittsburgh trailed 2-0 before Davis’ fourth-inning homer off Mike Leake.

    April 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Sitting Bulls bring home national sled hockey title

    The Johnstown Sitting Bulls disabled sled hockey team recently won a national championship.
    The team, comprised of disabled athletes from Cambria, Somerset, Indiana, Bedford and Blair counties, finished first in the Youth B Division at the USA Hockey National Disabled Hockey Festival held April 11-13 in Marlborough, Mass.

    April 21, 2014

  • Local Sports Briefs

    April 21, 2014

  • Pirates Brawl 0420 Brewers top Pirates in game highlighted by dustup

    Ryan Braun homered in the ninth inning to tie it, then Khris Davis hit a home run in the 14th that put Milwaukee ahead for good.
    Yet those were hardly the big blows that attracted all the attention Sunday in the Brewers’ 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

    April 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Football team ends boycott of embattled coach

    Minnesota State University-Mankato’s football team has ended its boycott of reinstated head coach Todd Hoffner, who successfully fought child pornography charges and other misconduct accusations that removed him from the job for 20 months.
    Hoffner said he assured the players, who refused to take the practice field Wednesday, that interim coach Aaron Keen, who led the team in Hoffner’s absence, will continue in a major role with the team.

    April 20, 2014

  • Penguins 0420a Game 3 pivotal for both teams

    Not so long ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets were the worst team in the NHL.
    Now they’re heading home for tonight’s Game 3 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins, hoping to make even more history.

    April 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Penguins 0419 Blue Jackets outlast Pens in double-OT

    Matt Calvert banged home a rebound 1:10 into the second overtime and the Columbus Blue Jackets earned the first playoff victory in franchise history with a 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.
    Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury stuffed the initial shot by Cam Atkinson but Calvert stood all alone at the left post and wristed a shot into the open net to even the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at one game each.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • Pirates 0419 Brewers rally to clip Pirates

    Ryan Braun hit two homers, including a two-run shot with two outs in the ninth inning that sent the Milwaukee Brewers over the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-7 Saturday night.
    Braun has five home runs this season after being suspended for the last 65 games of 2013 following Major League Baseball’s investigation into the Biogenesis drug scandal.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • Area runners gearing for Boston Marathon

    The time was 12:15 p.m. It was Monday April 19, 1897.  Tom Burke had drawn a line across the dirt road with his foot. Eighteen men gathered near Metcalf’s Mill in Ashland, Massachusetts.

    April 19, 2014