When Sid Bream scored on the hit by Francisco Cabrera in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, little did anyone know how tough baseball in Pittsburgh would become.
I mean, the world knew Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Doug Drabek would be gone after the season, but they didn’t think it would be 20 years before they had a winning season again.
But it wasn’t until 2013 that the Bucs, in one of the most beautiful ballparks in all of baseball, not only had a winning season, but made it back to the playoffs. That’s 20 years of futility before Clint Hurdle finally got them back to the Promised Land. From Jim Leyland to the aforementioned Hurdle, the Pirates went through Gene Lamont, Lloyd McClendon, Pete Mackanin, Jim Tracy and John Russell. Together those 5 Managers were a combined 964-1300, that’s 336 games below .500.
This from a storied franchise that has had the likes of Honus Wagner, Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente and five World Series titles.
But Hurdle and a group of youngsters breathed life back into this franchise. In 2013, they were a wild-card team and moved on to round 2 before losing to the Cardinals in the NLDS. Then last year, they had a better record, but still fell short of a division crown and ended up as a Wild Card. They lost in the play-in Game to the eventual Champion San Francisco Giants.
So why will 2015 be any different for these Pirates?
After all they still have to deal with the juggernaut in their division known as the 11-time World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.
They also have to worry about a Kris Bryant-led Cubs team that is up and coming. Then if they look eastward, the Nationals have a rotation that would make the Dodgers of the 60’s envious. Out west, the defending champion Giants are still hanging around and the Dodgers still have the best 1-2 punch in the game in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
The difference with this years’ version of ths 54-win Pirates team is simple, EXPERIENCE. This team has grown together and become just that, a team. Already with the best young outfield in the game with Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte and of course, Andrew McCutchen. Then they finally found a position for Pedro Alvarez, as they are platooning him at first base. Josh Harrison, after a slow start, was proving that 2014 was no fluke. Of course, he has now been slowed by injury, but should be back for at least the stretch run.
They were able to somewhat replace the pop of Russel Martin behind the plate with the discipline of Francisco Cervelli. Finally Korean import Jung Ho Kang finally started to look comfortable both at the plate and in the field, which is good news for the Bucco’s as they look like they will be without regular shortstop Jordy Mercer until September at the earliest.
But where this team has made the biggest leap forward, and what seems to bode well for them is on the pitching mound. Gerrit Cole has turned into a LEGIT ace, leading the NL in wins and with an ERA in the low 2’s. Francisco Liriano looks like he has rediscovered the curve that made him such a beast when he was healthy in Minnesota. Finally the return of AJ Burnett to the rotation gives the Pirates the 3 starters needed to succeed in the post-season. Their Top 3 can probably match-up with ANY top 3 in the game.
After a rough start, Mark Melancon has settled down to become a reliable closer that the Pirates need to shorten the game.
The biggest key to this team winning in the post-season will be GM Neil Hunnington’s ability to not only get a bullpen arm or two, but to add a bat before the trade deadline. Now I am not saying they need to call the Padres and pull off a deal for Justin Upton, but a nice role player off the bench can do wonders. A couple of years ago, Brian Sabean was able to add Marco Scutaro at the deadline and he became a key member of a World Championship team.
So with some minor additions, and as long as Cole, Liriano and Burnett keep throwing the way they have been all season, this Pirates team has a GREAT shot of getting to the Fall Classic. At the beginning of the season, I am on record as saying this will be the team that ends the Cardinals reign at the top of the NL Central.
The only doom and gloom I can bring to the citizens of PNC Park is this, if the Pirates don’t capture the flag this season, it will only get tougher. The Cardinals are always good, the Cubs are just getting better, the Nationals may actually stay healthy, the Mets have the best 5 young starters in the game (if they can all stay healthy), the Dodgers can outspend ANYONE in baseball, and the Giants, well for the Giants it is an even numbered year next season.