Finally. For so long there was nothing, now there is everything. Heck, all of the Pittsburgh Pirates wanted was a winning record, to burst through the .500 barrier. This was more than they could have hoped for as a way to end two decades of losing.
As of Sunday, the Pirates own the best record in baseball. Not merely the best record in the National League West Division, which would be achievement enough given the competition from the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds. Not merely the best record in the NL. But golly gee, the absolute best record, American League included.
How many Pirates fans saw this coming? Perhaps two. And their names are Honus Wagner and Roberto Clemente. No, this is big news in Pittsburgh. The Pirates have set a record for all U.S. major sports by finishing with a losing record for 20 straight seasons. That includes 2012 when as late as July they were cruising and not only looked like a sure-thing winning team, but a possible playoff team.
Then everything went kaput, including much faith and confidence in the Bucs.
This time things seem different. The Pirates are 50-30, 20 games over .500. Going into the end of a series against the Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh has an eight-game winning streak. That doesn’t seem shaky. That seems solid. They are being carried by excellent, all-around pitching and timely hitting, if not overwhelming individual sluggers.
Fans felt burned last year when the Pirates teased them and then folded. But right now the town is on a high, selling out the ball park every game as the young and flowering team comes through game after game.
Saturday, Francisco Liriano raised his record to 7-3 in a 2-1 victory over the Brewers and closer Jason Grilli collected his 27th save in 28 attempts. The pitching has been marvelous. Rookie Gerrit Cole, up from AAA Indianapolis only a few weeks ago, is 4-0, the first Pirate pitcher to win his first four games in the majors since 1907. Jeff Locke, who prior to this season had two years of cameos, is mowing down hitters and is sitting on a 7-1 record with a 2.06 earned run average.
And when manager Clint Hurdle calls to the bullpen he gets guys running to the mound who lock the door. Mark Melancon‘s middle relief work has been splendid. He has 23 holds and an earned run average of 0.92. Grilli’s ERA is 1.77.
Grilli has more saves in a half year this season than he had in his life entering the 2013 campaign. After Saturday’s win he reflected a little bit on how the interaction is going between the players and the sparked-up fans.
“People are dusting off their Pirates shirts and coming out in droves,” Grilli said, “and we’re trying to give them what they want to see.”
What those Pirates fans want to see is what Willie Stargell gave them, what Bill Mazeroski and his famous 1960 World Series-winning home run gave them–wins. They craved something to celebrate and they are celebrating a regular-season resurgence that was hugely overdue.
The Pirates hitting is not a match for Pirates pitching. Last year, All-Star Andrew McCutchen was all they had. This year McCutchen is batting .293, but players like third baseman Pedro Alvarez are making names for themselves. Alvarez hit his 20th home run of the season Saturday and he has a 12-game hitting streak going.
Pittsburgh has a long way to go before this team can be compared to the best Pirate teams since 1960, and that’s a lot to ask for. But perhaps what is being seen now is the fruit of long-term rebuilding and revamping at last paying off. Maybe the Pirates aren’t as good as they are playing now and they will slip back to third in the division before it’s all over.
Right now, though, the Pirates are surfing the big wave with style and aplomb and they are putting considerable distance between themselves and the .500 line.