July 2, 2013

Pirates are best team in majors, for now

Pittsburgh hopes to avoid the second-half collapses that have plagued them the last two seasons.

The Associated Press

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 have changed dramatically.

So have the results.

The Pirates are the toast of baseball, owners of the majors' best record at the 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 half-hearted 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 historic 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 mind-set around and be confident in ourselves.

"And it's shown on the field."

Has it ever. The Pirates not only hold a two-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals 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.

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 is.

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."

The 2010 Pirates were a young team lacking significant experience. That's changed with the addition of players such as pitchers Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and Mark Melancon and catcher Russell Martin.

With 12 games remaining before the All-star game, there's a good chance Pittsburgh will surpass its 2010 win total before the break. Then again, after what happened the past two seasons, seemingly no one associated with the Pirates is getting too elated.

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."

 

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