The Pirates have been down this road before. In fact, it was just a year ago. The Pirates were one of the best stories in baseball approaching the All-Star break in 2011. They were in contention in the National League Central and even sported a winning record, something they have not achieved since 1992.
The Pirates are again contending in the early days of July and once again threatening to finally end a streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons, the longest such skid in the history of major North American professional sports. In fact, the Pirates took over sole possession of first place on Wednesday when they raised their record to 45-36 and moved to nine games over .500, their highest point above breakeven since the final day of the 1992 regular season.
Last year, the Pirates led the division on July 25 before completely collapsing. They lost 12 of their 13 games to fall to 10 games back on August 7. No team in major-league history had gone from first place to a double-digit deficit in a shorter period of time. The Pirates went on to finish 72-90.
Thus, it is easy to be skeptical about the Pirates' chances of reaching the postseason this year, or even breaking .500. Manager Clint Hurdle thinks it is a fair question and doesn't hide from it.
"Honestly, who knows what's going to happen at this point of the season?" Hurdle said. "We've still got half the season left. What I do know is we have a group of men who are working very hard and playing well. I believe they learned from last season. Our motto since the first day of spring training has been "finish"—finish each at-bat, finish each pitch, just finish everything we do."
The Pirates seemingly have the pitching and defense to finish off a run to the playoffs, as they are fourth in the major leagues in runs allowed at 3.75 a game. The starting rotation includes four pitchers with FIPs under 4.00—Jeff Karstens (2.95), James McDonald (3.21), A.J. Burnett (3.60) and Erik Bedard (3.89). The offense, though it has perked up in the last month, is a different story; the Pirates are 23rd among the 30 major-league clubs in scoring with a 3.95 runs a game average. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen is spearheading the attack with a .356 TAv.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has been given by permission by ownership to explore all avenues in an attempt to upgrade the roster. Huntington believes he already has a better roster than last season, when injuries and fatigue took their toll. Left-hander Paul Maholm and right-hander Kevin Correia suffered injuries, and the performances of second baseman Neil Walker and center fielder Andrew McCutchen both waned in the final two months of the season.
"We had people hurt, we had people tired, and we didn't have enough depth to cover it," Huntington said. "Our depth is much better this year. We have better players at Triple-A to call up if we need help. We have the pieces to acquire help from outside if we need to do that. A lot of our guys had never experienced a season like last year, where the intensity was so high. I'm confident they've learned from it and are better-equipped to handle it this season."
Time will tell if Huntington's faith will be rewarded. However, the players insist they have the talent to win the division or one of the two wild card spots this season.
"I don't see any reason why we can't," Walker said. "We're no longer in a situation where we're a year away. The rebuilding is over. We're ready to win now, and we have the talent to do it. Most importantly, we have the belief in the clubhouse that we can do it. We're not the same old Pirates anymore. Things have changed here."
Tigers manager Jim Leyland has an interesting perspective on the Pirates. He was the manager the last time they had a winning season in 1992 and was there for the first four years of the streak of losing seasons. He still lives in Pittsburgh and is an unabashed Pirates fan, except for the home-and-home interleague series the Bucs and Tigers play each season; Major League Baseball designates them as interleague rivals.
"I think they've got a shot, a legitimate shot, at winning their division," Leyland said. "I'm not saying they're going to make the playoffs, but I think they are going to contend right until the end. They have a good team and I don't think they're going away.
"The Reds have a really good team, and the Cardinals are the world champs. They know how to win, but the Pirates can hang with them. I firmly believe that. They're a tough team to play because of that pitching. Their pitching is just so good."
Leyland is impressed by the job pitching coach Ray Searage has done with his staff and is a big McCutchen fan, like just about everything else in baseball. He believes the combination of Searage and McCutchen is one reason why the Pirates will at least finish with a winning record.
"I think they're going to do it, and if they do it'll be good for the Pirates, the fans, the city, everyone," Leyland said. "They really need to get rid of that hanging over their heads."
A few minutes with Twins manager Ron Gardenhire
On his team being in last place for a second straight season after finishing in the American League Central basement last season with 99 losses: "It's disappointing, but the biggest disappointment has been that we haven't had our starting rotation together all year because of injuries. Injuries just killed us last year, never gave us a chance to compete. You think maybe you are due to have better luck this year on the injury front, but it hasn't worked out that way. I'm not saying injuries are the only reason we haven't played well, but it's been a significant part of it. We've had to dip deep down into our starting pitching depth, and it's tough when you're being forced to use so many different starters."
On having catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau back at full strength after both former AL MVPs missed a significant amount of time last season because of injuries: "It's huge. Everyone knows what Joe and Justin bring to the table. They are star players. We missed them a ton last year. I don't think there is any team that could lose two star players of that magnitude and survive. It's good to have them back, and it's made a big difference in our offense, especially since we also added Josh Willingham to the middle of the order this season."
On if the Twins can reverse their two-year slide: "We've had a long run here the last 10 years or so, and everyone has some down times. It's been tough, but we don't make excuses here. We need to play better baseball—that's the bottom line. We showed signs of progress in the second half of last season. Hopefully, we'll show improvement in the second half again this season. I know we have a team capable of winning some ballgames."
Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez: "For me, he's as frustrating as any player in the game. He's got the tools to be a really good major-league player, but he has no idea had to play the game, no instincts. If he hasn't gotten it by now, I doubt he ever will, but you see that talent and it's hard to give up on him."
Rangers left-hander Matt Harrison: "I like his mound presence, which is something he didn't have much of until this season. You could tell in Game Seven of the World Series last year that he was nervous about getting the ball in a big game. Now, he stays calm on the mound. Even when he gets in a jam, he keeps his cool and limits the damage. He's turned a corner in his career."
Marlins first baseman Carlos Lee: "I'm not sure he would have been the answer to the Dodgers' problems, and I'm not so sure he's going to help the Marlins, either. He doesn't hit the ball out of the park anymore. He's still a good hitter. He draws his share of walks and he doesn't strike out much, but he seems content to be a 250-pound singles hitter at this stage of his career."
Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano: "This is a guy I'd trade for if I were a contender. I know he's never been the same since he blew out his elbow six years ago and he is frustrating with his inconsistency. The stuff is there, though, and I have a gut feeling a chance of scenery might cause him to take off. He could be a difference-maker in a pennant race."
Athletics catcher Derek Norris: "What I like about him is that he is a really good athlete, especially for a catcher. He can run a little bit, and he moves well behind the plate. His bat is his calling card, but he's more than just an offensive catcher."
- I may be in the minority, but I like Tony La Russa. However, the one thing I don't miss about him managing is the silly grudges he holds against people. Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto was certainly out of line in the infamous brawl with the Cardinals in 2010, but that shouldn't cause him to miss out on a well-deserved appearance in the All-Star Game.
- I think it is quite noble and selfless that Jim Palmer is selling his three Cy Young Awards to help fund his grandchildren's education and future care for his autistic stepson. If I had a cool 80 grand or so, I'd buy one of those Cy Youngs because it would look pretty good on the mantle.
- The Phillies may not be ready to pull the plug on this season, but they are going to have to stop kidding themselves about being contenders. Sometimes, it's just not your year, and that's the case with the Phillies in 2012.
- My pick for pitcher to have a big bounce back second half? Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum, who is smart enough and athletic enough to figure out and fix his delivery problems.
- Speaking of figuring out things, I'm still trying to understand that newfangled Rockies rotation.
In this week's Must Read, Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci reveals his midseason awards.