The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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July 1, 2013

First-place Pirates | Beleaguered franchise primed for success

PITTSBURGH — As the owner of the locker just to the right of the main entrance to the common area of the Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse, Garrett Jones arguably has the best panoramic view among his teammates as he sits at his stall.

Since first establishing himself as a major-league regular with Pittsburgh three years ago, the players he sees when he surveys the clubhouse has changed dramatically.

So have the results.

The Pirates are the toast of baseball, owners of the majors’ best record at their precise midpoint of their season (51-30). Should they maintain that pace over the next three months, they would win 102 games just three seasons after the 2010 Pirates lost 105.

Of course, they could win more than 102, as well, and it likely won’t be long before they officially guarantee a winning season – their first since 1992.

But it goes beyond numbers and historical roadblocks for this team. Jones believes, in addition to the new faces he encounters, there’s also a new attitude.

“There’s absolutely been a huge difference in confidence,” he said before a 2-1 Pittsburgh victory over the Milwaukee Brewers extended its winning streak to nine games Sunday. “When you’re losing, you kind of get caught up in it and it gets ingrained in your head and sometimes it’s tough to get it out. Now, everything and everybody is positive. We just focus on, ‘We’re going to win. We can win. We will win.’ We just had to change that mindset around and be confident in ourselves.

“And it’s shown on the field.”

Has it ever. The Pirates hold a two-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals not only in the National League Central, but also in the race for the best record in baseball. Saturday, they became the first team to reach 50 wins – doing it before July 1 for the first time in the 127-year history of the franchise.

That’s heady stuff for an organization – and a fan base – that has suffered through 20 consecutive losing seasons, a record for any North American major professional sports league.

“We’re over it. We don’t want to hear any more of that,” veteran starting pitcher A.J. Burnett said. “I understand the frustration outside the locker room, but we don’t even think about that. We think about the present and how good of a ballclub we are.”

Whether or not the Pirates’ pace of winning is sustainable through the end of the season is more in question in the context of collapses the past two years. It appeared the run of losing seasons could end in 2011 when the Pirates were 53-47 after 100 games – until they sputtered to a 19-43 finish to end with 90 losses.

That late flop pales in comparison, however, to last season, when Pittsburgh topped out at 16 games over .500 as late as 110 games in, only to limp through a 16-36 stretch to end the campaign.

“But now you’ve just got everybody buying in,” Burnett said. “You’ve got some new pieces to the puzzle that were added in the spring, and once everybody got settled in and everybody realized that the guys we got are 100 percent in like everybody else, it seems to be we’re all clicking on the same cylinders.”

The 2010 Pirates – like so many before them within the franchise – were a young team lacking significant experience. That’s changed upon the addition of players such as pitchers Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and Mark Melancon and catcher Russell Martin.

“The confidence comes from getting prepared out there, getting ready to go,” said Martin, who left the New York Yankees to sign a two-year, $17 million contract this past winter. “It’s like you’re studying for a test and you’re not worried about the test, you studied for it. That’s the feeling I think we have.”

With 12 games remaining before the All-star game, there’s a good chance Pittsburgh will surpass its 2010 win total prior to the break. Then again, after what happened the past two seasons, seemingly no one associated with the Pirates is getting too caught up with where they sit in the standings during July. Maybe in 2011, first place – no matter the point of the season – was cause for elation.

Not now.

“It’s definitely something we notice and take pride in, but we’re nowhere near the finish line yet,” Jones said. “We’re in a good spot, a good place we want to be, but we’ve got to keep it going.

“We’re not celebrating anything yet.”

Still, colloquial veteran manager Clint Hurdle encourages his players to “enjoy the scenery – while traveling down the road of a season.”

“There’s been a handful of a games – mile-markers along way – that say, ‘You know what, we’ve got a chance to be special,’ ” Hurdle said. “‘We’ve got a chance to do something special.”’

Examples? Hurdle pointed to victories at Cincinnati, a division rival, on June 20, when rookie journeyman Brandon Cumpton started, and bullpen aces Melancon and Jason Grilli were unavailable; and to three days later, at Anaheim vs. the Angels, when Pittsburgh scored three in the ninth and four in the 10th to win.

The Pirates also won a game that took more than 6 1⁄2 hours to play – counting a rain delay – on Sunday, with their bullpen tossing 10 shutout innings.

It’s victories like those that support a belief that these particular Pirates are the ones destined to exorcise two decades of frustration.

Pitcher Charlie Morton, though, isn’t buying into that. He spent the first two months on the disabled list concluding recovery from Tommy John surgery and yearns to be part of a winner for the first time in his career.

“Everything that these guys have done has been earned,” Morton said. “I don’t see it as ‘things are going our way,’ or ‘we’re catching all the breaks.’ I don’t see that, you know?

“I see a team that’s fighting for every inch and earning every win. I wouldn’t classify it as luck. I wouldn’t. Because that would be selling them short about what they’ve done so far.”

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