The Times West Virginian

May 26, 2013

COLUMN: Pirates on brink of breaking the losing streak

By Jarrod Harris
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Let’s jump off the Polar Bear train a few days and talk about some professional sports.

Now, for you Pens and Pirates fans out there, you are all about to witness something special this year.

The Penguins are on the brink of winning a Stanely Cup, and the good ol’ Pirates are playing up to their expectations.

Just last year, people were calling for both Pittsburgh Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle’s and general manager Neil Huntington’s heads following the 16-game debacle that kept the Pirates from making the playoffs and breaking the 20-year-old barrier of actually having a winning record.

So, why is it different this season? Why are the Pirates possibly for real?

It’s because of their wonderful acquisitions that they acquired earlier in the free agency.

With the likes of Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano, the Pirates have finally nailed a few key additions that put the team in a spot to succeed.

While riding back from the Pirates-Cubs game a few days ago, something really triggered me on my ride home.

I was listening to Eric Hagman on 93.7 The FAN. This is when he said something that really put me on the edge of my seat.

He said, “Just a few months ago, Neil (Huntington) was on his way out of Pittsburgh. Fans didn’t like him and he wasn’t succeeding. Everyone kept saying, ‘The Pirates are just a year away — we all need to be patient.’ Well, I had to put myself in his shoes. Yes, we all have been critical of the Pirates; however, you’re asking a guy to sign big players with a little check book.”

Hagman continues, “You can’t get that one guy who is a superstar. You’re trying to get the guy who is under the radar and hope that they will become something better than what other people thought. It’s a tough situation to be in as a GM because you’re limited in your spending and you’re hoping that the players you do sign,exceed their potential.”

Let’s look at last season for example. The Pirates made a huge signing with the former New York Yankees ‘“washed-up” right hander in AJ Burnett.

Huntington nailed the signing on the head, but where were the people congratulating him on the big signing?

Then, this past offseason, Huntington signed Liriano instead of current Seattle Mariners left-handed pitcher, Joe Saunders.

If you looked at both pitchers before this season, Liriano was an aging pitcher who lost his competitive edge.

He tallied a terrible 5.34 ERA, and his record was atrocious at 6-12.

As for the Johnson, he was much better. He tallied a near three on the ERA scale at 4.09 earned runs per nine innings. His record was positive as well. He tallied a 9-13 record from both Arizona and Baltimore last season.

But now, let’s look at the splits for this season.

Johnson is getting rocked — he has an ERA of 6.09 and a record of 3-5. As for the Pirate’s Liriano, he’s dominating — 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA.

“Liriano lowered his season ERA and season WHIP to 1.00 and 1.11, respectively, while his strikeout rate dropped to 12.5 K/9,” Mike Axisa of CBS sports said following the Pirates-Cubs game on Wednesday. “That's 25 strikeouts in 18 innings. He's always been known as a big strikeout guy, but he couldn't really seem to put the rest of the package together following Tommy John surgery.

“For now, though, Liriano is pitching like the ace so many expected him to become after his dynamite rookie campaign in 2006. Injuries and control problems have hampered him over the years — in fact he's had several other stretches of dominance like this -- but at age 29 it's hard not to wonder if he's putting it all together. Three starts don't tell us much, but they are three wins in the bank for the Pirates.”

It wasn’t just Liriano who Huntington took a chance on. They also signed an aging catcher in Russell Martin.

Martin so far this season has found the fountain of youth. He’s the team’s leader; he gets clutch hits; he has one of the best arms in the game.

So, with these two additions, it creates a happy medium for the Pirates’ squad.

“We feel that we have more than capable people in our bullpen,” Hurdle said following the Pirates game on Sunday. “We have our starting players in a good place. So, we have the talent and we have the lessons learned to know that at the end of the day that we will see results.

“I think we’ve done that so far this season because we are constantly self-evaluating both our staff and our players.”

With the addition of Jeff Locke and a few more young guns in the minors — Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon — the Pirates look like they actually may be the real deal.

Only time will tell.

“These men want more,” Hurdle said. “They know if you want more, then you have to do more. That comes down to getting better every day, and to create a mindset to improve as the season goes on.

“That’s been one of the things on the top of our to-do list. We have to control the grind and that’s the biggest thing teams get caught up in. My feeling is that these men are committed in winning and they are the ones who are establishing the winning atmosphere and the confidence that comes with that. You look around to our core players and the players we’ve added, we’re all on the same page.”

Email Jarrod Harris at jhar­ or follow him on Twitter @JarrodHarrisTWV.