All the pieces are finally coming together for the Pittsburgh Pirates. It only took 20 years to do it, but nonetheless, the time is finally here for the Bucco Nation to breathe easy and believe it when you hear this team is for real. No, really.
One could easily say this team could falter once again after the All-Star break like they did in 2011 after the devastating and controversial 19-inning loss to the Atlanta Braves.
And last year, it seemed Pittsburgh lost composure after their lack of success against the Cincinnati Reds. Aroldis Chapman seemed to put the damper on this club on August 3rd when he beamed Andrew McCutchen with a 101 miles-per-hour fastball.
That was the moment the Pirates had a chance to show they were the team that could bounce back after that game. Instead, they began to lose more and more games throughout August and flirted with a Wild Card spot before losing 22 of their remaining 29 games and finished 79-83. The team showed no passion and no fight whatsoever in September.
Do not fret. These 2013 Pirates are a much different team than the one we saw the last two years when they teased us before the All-Star break. Here are the top five reasons to believe this year.
1. Support Around McCutchen:
There is no question that McCutchen is among the elite players in the Major League. Who can deny his incredible performance in 2012 when he held the top batting average for a majority of the season?
It was not subtle to see that he carried the Pirates throughout the year with numerous walk-off hits.
The problem was this team ranked 24th in the league in runs scored (651) and once McCutchen cooled off after the All-Star break, so did the rest of the bats in Pittsburgh.
In 2013, it is a different scenario. McCutchen is not even considered to be in his prime yet this season. He got off to a slow start in April and did not start hitting until the middle of May. Here we are approaching the end of June and he is closing in on a .290 batting average with seven home runs and 36 RBI.
As of June 22, Pedro Alvarez (who has heated up in the last month) is tied for fourth in the National League with 17 home runs and eighth with 49 RBI. He leads the club in both categories. Newcomer Russell Martin is tied with McCutchen with seven homers, and Garrett Jones and Starling Marte each have six. Sure the Pirates are only 22nd in the Majors in runs scored right now, but their pitching is currently carrying the team.
As McCutchen continues to get hot at the plate rolling into July, this lineup has enough talent to continue to support their leader. They do not have to rank in the top five in runs scored to play .500 ball. He is not close to having the season he did in 2012 and it is highly doubtful that he will repeat those numbers. But Pittsburgh is still managing to score runs and is getting big hits from the supporting cast they did not have last year.
2. Jeff Locke
The starting pitching is without a doubt the main reason the Pirates are in the hunt in 2013.
When the season started, the rotation did not look very promising on paper despite AJ Burnett and Wandy Rodgriguez leading the way. James McDonald was a huge question mark after his collapse after July last year, Charlie Morton, Francisco Liriano and Jeff Karstens were not healthy but still expected to contribute and the young Jeff Locke was the man projected as the No. 5 starter.
Right now, Locke leads the National League with a 2.01 ERA and is sporting an impressive 6-1 record. He only started in six games last season and went 1-3 with an ugly 5.50 ERA.
The fact that Locke has become a very dependable starter every fifth day for Manager Clint Hurdle, it is taking the pressure off the Pirates’ management to make certain decisions.
At the age of 25, he is showing he has what it takes to be a consistent starter in the Majors. Sure, he doesn’t have over-powering stuff striking out 8-10 per outing, but he is getting the job done quietly as he recently snuck his way to the top of the National League in ERA (ahead of Clayton Kershaw and rookie sensation Shelby Miller).
Any young pitcher will benefit from receiving support and mentoring from a veteran like Burnett, and it is clear that Locke is carrying a large load right now with the rotation banged up.
Locke may be a lock for the All-Star game next month, but fans have the right to be skeptical after watching what happened with “J-Mac” in 2012.
3. Small Ball
As mentioned earlier, the Pittsburgh Pirates are not considered one of the league’s top offensive powerhouses.
One thing they are doing well up and down this lineup is playing small ball and winning close games using the fundamentals.
Over the last several years, Pittsburgh has struggled to find a solid leadoff hitter to get the offense rolling night in and night out. They thought they had their man in McCutchen years back until management decided to place him in the No. 3 spot. Aki Iwamura was certainly not the guy. Jose Tabata and Alex Presley failed to stay healthy and consistent enough to secure the job. But now, the Pirates finally seem to have their man.
Marte has come into his own during his first full season in the Majors. He has shown he has the speed, consistency, good defense in the outfield and plenty of pop in the bat. Not to mention how he made his splash last season when he was called up and hit his first career home run in his first Major League at-bat.
Aside from the little things Marte has done to help the lineup, Pittsburgh has improved their defense behind the plate when it comes to throwing out runners (another aspect they have struggled in).
And of course, a team cannot win close games without timely hitting. Over the years of agony, the fans have been left scratching their heads when this team failed to score a run with bases loaded and no outs. Again, not the case this season. They are manufacturing runs when needed via bloop singles and home runs.
When it comes to the bullpen, well they have what is arguably the best in the game.
Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli have become the new two-headed monster in Pittsburgh. If they have the lead going into the eighth inning, it has pretty much been “lights out” for the opposing teams.
A team cannot win as many close games as the Pirates have without executing in the smaller things that sometimes do not show up on the stat sheet. Thus far, they have done just that.
4. Strong Depth
This goes back to the pitching staff.
Burnett, Rodriguez, Karstens, McDonald, Jeanmar Gomez and Jared Hughes are amongst those pitchers who are currently on the disabled list for Hurdle.
Locke has been leading the charge right now, Morton is back and pitching well, Liriano has been solid and the much-anticipated Garrit Cole has been called up at the perfect time.
The first round-pick from 2008 has been living up the hype early on since being called upon. He is 3-0 and has displayed velocity and movement on his pitches similar to Stephen Strasburg. Chances are, Pirates’ fans will be fortunate enough to see him in the rotation as the season progresses, but the management will probably have a leash on him to ensure his future success with the organization.
It is hard to believe this team continues to win low-scoring games with the talent that is sidelined.
Aside from the pitching, Hurdle also has a solid platoon in the outfield and first base. Gaby Sanchez, who was acquired by Pittsburgh at the trade deadline last year has been an asset at the plate when facing a left-handed pitcher. Jones has been splitting time between first (with Sanchez) and right field (with Travis Snyder).
Much like the Pittsburgh Penguins of 2013, there lies a problem with this Pirates team. When all of the players come off the shelf, who gets a starting job and who gets sent down?
Hey, the Pirates have had plenty of problems in the last twenty years, but this is the first “good problem.”
5. Finding success on the road
Pittsburgh usually plays well at home. They do indeed play in one of the most beautiful ball parks in baseball. But when a team can win, or at least play decent on the road, they show resiliency.
Over the last two decades, the Pirates did their best to give their home crowd some entertaining baseball to watch. Then, they would hit the road. And from there, well… no comment.
Not to say they have not been gradually improving, but nothing tells a story better than some good old fashion statistics.
2009; Overall- 62-99, Home- 40-41, Road- 22-58
2010; Overall- 57-105, Home- 40-41, Road- 17-64
2011; Overall- 72-90, Home- 36-45, Road- 36-45
2012; Overall- 79-83, Home- 45-36, Road- 34-47
2013 (Through June 21); Overall- 44-30, Home- 25-13, Road- 19-17
Well, numbers do not lie. A lot of it has to do with a team’s mentality. If a team can go on the road, and play well in another team’s ballpark, or have a successful road trip, it simply gives the team momentum coming back home in front of a very enthusiastic crowd. So far, the Pirates have done that.
Of course, the road ahead will be a challenging one for the Buccos. Pittsburgh has 14 games against the St. Louis Cardinals after the All-Star break and nine with the Reds.
Let’s face it, this team is improving. If it were not for being what could be the toughest division in the league, they would be sitting pretty in first place. All that can be said to the Bucco Nation is- sit tight and have some faith. This team is truly ready to compete in 2013.