The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Pro

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
Pro
  • Pirates 0721 Rallying Dodgers snap Pirates’ win streak at 3 games

    Hyun-Jin Ryu pitched seven strong innings, Adrian Gonzalez reached base five times and the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-2 on Monday night.
    Ryu (11-5) joined Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw in making the Dodgers the first team in the majors with three 11-game winners.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Pirates 0720 Pirates rally to keep sweep

    Taking the extra base was the key for the Pittsburgh Pirates in completing a three-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies.
    Andrew McCutchen hit a tiebreaking single in the seventh inning, Neil Walker followed with a home run and the Pirates overcame a three-run deficit to beat the Rockies 5-3 Sunday.

    July 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • McIlroy 0720 McIlroy holds on to win British Open

    Walking off the 18th green as the British Open champion, Rory McIlroy kept gazing at all the greats on golf’s oldest trophy.
    On the claret jug, his name is etched in silver below Phil Mickelson.

    July 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Pirates 0719 Pirates take second straight over Rockies, win in 11th inning

    Jordy Mercer doubled home Neil Walker with one out in the bottom of the 11th inning to lift the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Rockies on Saturday night.
    Walker led off the inning with a single against Colorado’s Chad Bettis (0-2), moved to second on a sacrifice bunt, and scored one batter later when Mercer hit a drive deep into the gap in left-center.

    July 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • out at home Eighth-inning rally carries Pirates to victory over Rockies

    Travis Snider’s pinch-hit double in the eighth scored Neil Walker to spark the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 4-2 victory over the Colorado Rockies on Friday night.
    Walker trotted home when Colorado right fielder Carlos Gonzalez couldn’t track down Snider’s sinking line drive off reliever Matt Belisle (2-5). All-Star Josh Harrison added a sacrifice fly one batter later.

    July 18, 2014 2 Photos

  • score Pirates in race, hope for late surge

    The Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves in an average, every day – if still heated – pennant race.
    A season after shedding the yoke of two decades of failure with a stirring run to a playoff berth, the Pirates are just another solid if not spectacular team trying to keep pace in the jam-packed NL Central.

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Derby 0714 Cespedes wins again, beating Frazier in HR derby

    July 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • All-Star Game 0714 Pitching matchup features two of game’s most dominant arms

    July 14, 2014 1 Photo

  • Jeter 0714 Derek Jeter, an All-Star for the last time

    July 14, 2014 1 Photo

  • Cleveland Browns getting 'Swagger’ with new dog mascot

    Johnny Manziel’s newest teammate with the Browns has four legs and can roll over on command.

    July 14, 2014

Poll

What is the biggest key to reducing gun violence in Johnstown?

Tackling the area's drug problem.
Controlling folks moving into city housing.
Monitoring folks in treatment centers and halfway houses.
Tougher sentencing by the court system.
More police on the streets.

     View Results
Order Photos


Photo Slideshow

House Ads