By Will Graves
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.”
What the Pirates are, they insist, are confident yet wary.
They begin the second half of the season in Cincinnati on Friday night 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 it 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 30 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.”