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. 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 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 center fielder 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 Colorado to the World Series in 2007, his post All-Star break record 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.
And 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 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 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, 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.
“We’re going to lose a couple,” ace A.J. Burnett said. “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 regained 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 former No. 1 pick Gerrit Cole gave Pittsburgh a needed jolt when he arrived with his triple-digit fastball 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 have turned most games into seven-inning affairs. The Pirates are 46-1 when leading going into the eighth.
“It makes it easy knowing that they’re doing what they’re doing,” McCutchen said.
McCutchen, however, knows that the Pirates rank 26th in batting average and runs. But the way they look at it, they’re a game back of the Cards and they aren’t even scoring.
“We see room for improvement and that’s what drives us,” McCutchen said.