WASHINGTON, July 22, 2011—The questions that generally hang around PNC Park this late in the baseball season tend to be skewed toward whether or not the hometown Pirates will avoid last place in the NL Central. On rare days, the discussion could revolve around whether Pittsburgh might manage to avoid a losing season. This time around, the unthinkable might be on the horizon.
Today the Pirates, owners of an ignominious 18 consecutive losing seasons, sit in first place in their division, albeit only percentage points ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers. At 51-45, they sit comfortably in the top third of NL teams. They have put together a remarkable stable of bare-minimum wins in order to sit six games over .500 despite a slim +14 run differential.
Modest improvement had always been acknowledged as a possibility since the 2007 house-cleaning that ousted Dave Littlefield as general manager and installed former Cleveland Indians assistant Neal Huntington in his place. A large part of that possibility was veiled in the debate over whether the Pirates, who compiled a 442-581 (.433) record under Littlefield, could sink any further.
But they did manage to slip further and further. Three straight last-place finishes followed Littlefield’s firing. In 2010, the streak culminated with a 57-win season, just six more than the Pirates have at this point in the current season. Huntington calmly dismissed Pittsburgh’s struggles as the prelude to the culmination of the franchise’s rebuilding project. Most writers, myself included, glibly shot back that the Pirates had been rebuilding and promising the end of rebuilding out of both sides of their mouths for 18 years. Some projected a slight improvement, perhaps to fourth. But no one saw, nor could have seen, something like this coming.
Even if everything lined up, surely the Pirates would find a way to lose again, despite 2010’s serious challenge from the Astros for the title of laughingstock of the National League. It’s hard to tell what is in fact the greater surprise this year. Is it the Pirates standing in first place? Or is it that they have accomplished the improbable while plagued by injuries and the like?
Of the hitters who were supposed to serve as team cornerstones this season, only star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen has produced as promised. Catcher Chris Snyder and third baseman Pedro Alvarez have missed the majority of the season with injuries. Left fielder José Tábata has missed the past month with a leg injury. Veteran shortstop Ronny Cedeño has missed time as well. Right fielder Garret Jones has struggled to match his breakout power numbers from 2009 and 2010.
Amazingly, Pittsburgh’s pitching staff has been the backbone of the team, and the biggest reason that the Pirates are hanging around at the top of the division. Jeff Karstens, long thought to be the most insignificant piece of the Xavier Nady trade, is turning in a career year at 8-5 with 2.28 ERA, despite playing in one of baseball’s most hitter-friendly parks. But probably the biggest boost for the Pirates this year has been Joel Hanrahan’s long-overdue breakout as a closer. By finally curing his chronic wildness, Hanrahan has emerged as one of the ablest finishers in the league.
Where can the Pirates go from here? Tied for a playoff spot, anything they do from here, excluding horrific collapse, will be hailed as a seven-league step in the right direction. Even if they can’t hold off the charging Brewers and Cardinals, this year’s Pittsburgh Pirates have made their franchise relevant again. If they have to resort to next year to end their lengthy playoff drought, so be it. For the first time since the days of Barry Bonds and Andy Von Slyke, they’ll be hailed as the contenders they at last are.
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