The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Sports

May 25, 2013

Surprising Pirates enjoying early success

PITTSBURGH — Jason Grilli gets it. Really, he does.

The angst. The dread. The perpetual waiting for it to all fall apart. The Pirates closer totally understands why Pittsburgh’s tormented, long-suffering fan base treats every victory with a mix of glee and trepidation.

Even now, in the midst of the team’s best start in a generation, Grilli spends half his time trying to find the right way to be respectful of the constant skepticism and dismissive of it at the same time.

It’s a delicate balance. The major league leader in saves is well aware the Pirates haven’t made the playoffs or even posted a winning record since 1992, a 21-year drought that is simply known in western Pennsylvania as “The Streak.”

Whenever it comes up, though, Grilli responds not with an apology or a hug but a challenge to let it go.

“I tell them, ‘You know what? In 1992 I was a sophomore in high school,”’ the 36-year-old right-hander said. “So when people say it, I go, ‘I remember that, I appreciate how you feel. But what’s happening right now? Come to the ballpark. Make some noise. You’ll see.”’

What they’ll see – at least at the moment – is a team intent on finally shedding its underachieving image.

Powered their charismatic, karaoke-belting stopper, a starting rotation putting up eye-popping numbers and an optimistic manager who considers himself equal parts tactician and philosopher, the Pirates head into Memorial Day weekend as one of the baseball’s biggest surprises.

Pittsburgh entered Friday 28-13 since a 1-5 start, the best mark in majors over that span. Those 41 games mark a quarter of the season, a “sample size” – to borrow one of manager Clint Hurdle’s favorite phrases – large enough that Hurdle believes his team is for real.

“I love the way we’re going about our business,” he said.

He should. After two tantalizing summers under Hurdle turned into September swoons, including a painful tumble from 16 games over .500 on Aug. 8 to a 79-83 finish last fall, Hurdle and his players insist the success they’re enjoying can extend beyond Labor Day.

Not that they want to talk about it. Ask second baseman Neil Walker what makes him confident it won’t all fall apart and the Pittsburgh native lets out a groan.

“I’m not going to address that,” he said, rolling his eyes in faux disgust. “I get it. It’s going to be talked about and addressed but the thing is, we don’t know what’s going to happen. What we do know is every time we go out we feel we’ve got a good chance to win.”

That wasn’t always the case.

Walker endured 99 losses in 2009 and 105 in 2010. He and centerfielder Andrew McCutchen – the cornerstones of the franchise’s rebuilding project – watched the revolving clubhouse door spin round and round for years. The pace, it seems, has finally slowed. The same faces are sticking around, creating the kind of stability that can lead to perhaps the most vital ingredient necessary to become winners: chemistry.

“In the past, we didn’t have that all-in mentality,” Walker said. “I think this year it’s better than I’ve ever seen it.”

The proof lies in his team’s resilience. Pittsburgh’s 14 comeback victories are tied for the most in the majors and the Pirates have reeled off six straight wins in one-run games. The pressure they cracked under last fall has turned into the fire that fuels them.

Hurdle, who emails daily inspirational missives to a lengthy list of acquaintances and has an eclectic stack of self-empowerment and baseball history books on his desk, called the dismal 9-22 finish to 2012 a “pebble” in his team’s shoe. Whenever he feels his players getting ahead of themselves, he encourages them to find the stone and dig their heel in as a reminder of the pain.

“You need to hold onto that angst,” Hurdle said. “You need to find a way to keep fighting back. Maybe there’s a game won here that got away from us last year or a game you find a way to scratch out because of a bouncing ball in right field. They add up.”

They’re adding up quickly. Pittsburgh went 8-2 on its recently completed homestand, including a 5-4 victory against hapless Houston when two Astros players collided trying to catch a routine fly ball in the bottom of the ninth allowing Travis Snider to plate the winning run.

It’s the kind of game the Pirates used to lose with regularity. Now, not so much. Just don’t call them lucky.

Led by A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and a resurrected Francisco Liriano, the pitching staff has a 2.41 ERA in May, easily the best in baseball. The offense hasn’t been spectacular but timely, like Travis Snider’s pinch-hit grand slam against the Cubs in a 5-4 victory on Tuesday.

And when the Pirates get up, they stay up. Pittsburgh is remarkable 23-1 when leading after seven innings thanks to a bullpen that set-up man Mark Melancon dubbed “The Shark Tank” because as Grilli puts it “when we smell blood, we attack.”

Grilli can’t help but laugh as he talks about it, maybe because the idea of a bullpen led by a journeyman reliever is kind of preposterous. The well-traveled pitcher was handed the closing job for the first time in his career over the winter when the Pirates decided to trade two-time All-Star Joel Hanrahan to Boston rather than give him the hefty raise he was due in salary arbitration.

While Hanrahan struggled early for the Red Sox before an elbow injury shelved him for the year, Grilli has become automatic. He is 19 for 19 in save opportunities, each one celebrated with a roar and a fistpump as his slicked-back shoulder-length hair bounces under his baseball cap.

In a way, Grilli and Burnett – he of the National League-leading 79 strikeouts, arms full of tattoos and mischievous grin – are a perfect antidote to the persistent cloud “The Streak” casts over the franchise, if not the players in uniform.

If Grilli isn’t leading clubhouse lingerers like Melancon and catcher Russell Martin in some postgame karaoke – “Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi is Grilli’s go-to song – then Burnett is taking rehabbing starting pitcher Jeff Karstens outside in the lazy hours before batting practice starts and racing remote control cars across the PNC Park outfield.

There’s a hockey goal, complete with sticks and a couple of plastic balls, around in case things get too slow. Peek into Grilli’s locker and you’ll find a life-sized Chewbacca costume sitting in there because, well, he thought it looked like fun.

“We play a kids game,” Grilli said. “If you lose sight of that, you’re in trouble.”

It happened over the season’s final six weeks in 2012 when Pittsburgh crumbled in the midst of a pennant race. The weight of “The Streak” appeared to become too much. The giddy fraternity house atmosphere disappeared in September as the losses mounted and frustration set in.

“It got to a point where we were kind not knowing good things would happen but kind of hoping for things to happen,” shortstop Clint Barmes said. “Then it started to snowball and then it got to the point that it was too much tension in here. It wasn’t fun.”

A mistake the Pirates vow they won’t make again. Maybe that’s why utility infielder Brandon Inge decided to dress up in full hockey gear – helmet, shoulder pads and roller blades included – and skate around the clubhouse before a 4-2 win over Chicago on Thursday. Several players then donned Penguin jerseys before flying to Milwaukee for a weekend series with the Brewers.

The Penguins, a favorite to win the Stanley Cup, noticed. Forward Matt Cooke plans to repay the favor in September.

“We’ll be wearing the Pirate jerseys,” he said with a laugh.

Consider Cooke a believer. Not everyone is. The average attendance of 20,504 is lagging behind last year’s pace, though some unpredictable weather and several series against also-rans hasn’t helped.

The Pirates don’t mind if others take their time before buying in.

They’re well aware the doubters will only get louder, waiting for the collapse, if the hot start extends into the summer and beyond. The last 21 years have provided the cynics plenty of fodder. Grilli’s response? So what.

“Everybody is trying to pin this losing history on us,” Grilli said. “We weren’t here for it. We just know we’re playing two months of solid baseball right now. Now we have to do that two more times and if we do that, we know where we’re going to be.”

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