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March 26, 2014

Pirates looking for repeat after breakthrough year

PITTSBURGH — The roars have faded. The giddiness of ending 21 years of futility and coming with a game of the National League championship series, too.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are in some ways just another NL contender these days. That dark cloud of two decades of losing is gone after a remarkable 94-68 surge and the playoff berth that came along with it in 2013.

Now the franchise needs to figure out what to do with the rest of its life. For three seasons a club that was a laughingstock when manager Clint Hurdle took over in December 2010 has slowly made inroads to relevance.

Suddenly, the “World Series or bust” attitude owner Bob Nutting has espoused for years doesn’t seem so laughable anymore.

Press reigning NL Manager of the Year Clint Hurdle on what his team can possibly do for an encore despite a relatively quiet offseason and he responds with his usual eternal optimism.

“Excellence is verb, not a noun,” Hurdle said. “You’re going to continue to push forward. Our goal is to win a sixth world championship. The fact is, we haven’t won an LCS or a division series. We need to maintain our focus on the things we need to do.”

Five keys that will determine whether Pittsburgh’s rise continues or levels off.

Replacing A.J.

Veteran pitcher A.J. Burnett played a pivotal role in helping the Pirates make the mental transformation from hapless losers to contenders. He’s gone after signing with Philadelphia for the kind of money Pittsburgh’s office didn’t want to offer a 37-year-old.

Though the Pirates might miss his presence, there’s a chance they can match his production. Gerrit Cole was spectacular at times as a rookie, getting better as the season wore on. He went 5-0 in September and hardly looked like a 23-year-old during his two postseason starts, including five effective innings in Game 5 of the division series loss to St. Louis. Though Francisco Liriano, who resurrected his career last season by going 16-8, is the present ace, Cole is very much the future.

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