By Matthew Digiacomo
It is not over yet.
Sure, the streak of 20 straight non-winning seasons has finally been put to rest. But the Pittsburgh Pirates are looking for far more than a .500 record. This team is thinking playoffs.
And why not? I know it may be hard for fans to fathom, but October baseball is not out of the question. And here is why ...
1. Statistically, the Pirates sport one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. The 3.20 ERA is second only to the Atlanta Braves (3.19). The team is tied for third in MLB in saves with 45 despite the loss of closer Jason Grilli. And no team is better at keeping opponents off base, as can be seen by Pittsburgh’s .237 batting average against, tied with Cincinnati for best in the majors.
2. Clint Hurdle. I applauded the choice when the Pirates hired him on Nov. 15, 2010. And he brought the team exactly what it needed — a teacher. If you are unsure of this little fact, just look at the development of Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte. The three have largely carried the Pirates’ offense this season, and I think Hurdle has helped them adjust to the majors big time. Regardless of what happens, I think Hurdle is the manager of the year in the National League.
3. McCutchen is on fire. Last season, the three-time All-Star center fielder went into a massive slump after the All-Star break and the Pirates paid for it by going into a nose dive and finishing two wins short of .500. Not this season. McCutchen is hitting .355 since July 19 and is a big reason the Pirates have continued their winning ways. At this rate, Pittsburgh will be punching that ticket to the postseason sooner rather than later and McCutchen will certainly be one of the favorites for MVP.
4. No pick-up in baseball has made things easier on the other players around him than Francisco Lariano. A second thought at the beginning of the year, the left hander has proven to be the ace of the staff. His 15-7 record and 2.98 ERA are among the best in baseball. If he can keep it going in the postseason, anything is possible. And while I do not think he will get enough chances to be a serious threat to Clayton Kershaw, he certainly can make a case for the Cy Young award.
5. The Pirates did not sell the farm for players that were not going to make a difference at the trade deadline. Instead, they got outfielder Marlon Byrd and catcher John Buck from the New York Mets and first baseman Justin Morneau from Minnesota through waivers. None of the moves are going to make the Pirates an offensive juggernaut down the stretch. However, all three men have been involved in playoff races before, adding valuable experience in that capacity. And who knows, Morneau is coming off his best month in two years ... maybe he will revert to his MVP-winning year of 2006 just in time for the playoffs.
All said, what GM Neal Huntington has done since taking over in 2007 is remarkable. And face the facts ... he has done it with extremely tight purse strings. Pittsburgh is not going out and signing the big-name free agents like the large-market teams.
And while it took a little longer than planned, but the Pirates are once again a contender.