Five things that changed Pirates' season
ATLANTA -- The Pirates began the 2014 season bouncing in first gear on a cobblestone road that led to a dead end. They are ending it in overdrive on the National League autobahn.
Their five speed-changing gears in between:
Josh Harrison unchained
Question most often heard in National League press boxes: "Where did Harrison come from?" Answer: "The shadows cast on the Bucs' bench."
Through Harrison's first three-plus seasons with the Pirates, team brass clearly considered him a useful but flawed player. He bounced all around, including Indianapolis. In 2011-2013, Harrison had 575 plate appearances in the Majors -- and 550 in the Minors.
In mid-May, outfielders Starling Marte and Jose Tabata both suffered leg injuries in the same game. Then second baseman Neil Walker had an appendectomy. When Pedro Alvarez's arm went haywire, Harrison dropped anchor at third. He still energized the Bucs, but rather than occasionally off the bench, did so regularly in the lineup.
Locke, Worley to the rescue
Through May, the Pirates had played 55 games, and their starting pitchers had eight wins. Then it got worse: the disabled list called Gerrit Cole (sore shoulder) and Francisco Liriano (left oblique).
In response, the Bucs called Jeff Locke and Vance Worley, two insurance policies in the Indianapolis bureau. They not only bought time for the recoveries of the two aces, but ripped off consistent, solid starts, providing a bridge over a very rough patch.
Locke made Wandy Rodriguez (remember him?) forgettable. Worley became a permanent fixture when a sports hernia unplugged another veteran, Charlie Morton.
Mark Melancon gets his turn, case closed
The loss of an All-Star closer has ruined the hopes of numerous contenders through the years. The Pirates were cowering from the same fate when injury, then ineffectiveness, curbed Jason Grilli.
Thanks to a forethoughtful move made 17 months earlier by general manager Neal Huntington, the Bucs had a Plan B: Mark Melancon, who had closed for the Astros in 2011 -- and for the Pirates in 2013 through another Grilli injury -- stepped in and stepped up.
Even after having spent two months of the season in a setup role, Melancon has rallied into the NL's Top 10 with 30-plus saves.
Pinch me, is this for real?
Upgrading a bench isn't sexy, but bolstering their reserve talent was one of the Pirates' top priorities. It is also an NL mandate, given double-switches. The Bucs didn't change any of the faces during the offseason -- but incumbents Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez changed their workout routines and showed up ready to roll.
The late-April acquisition of Ike Davis from the Mets completed a Holy Trinity. The Pirates by far lead the Majors in pinch-hit RBIs, with these three having provided the bulk of the production. They have been a major component of the team's comeback persona.
It's not how you start ...
Jordy Mercer, by the challenge of transitioning to full-time play, and Marte, by injury and personal issues, weighed down the lineup through the first two months of the season. The shortstop entered June hitting .199, the left fielder only a little better at .246.
Then Mercer got comfortable, Marte got healthy, both got hot, and the holes in the Pirates' connect-the-dots offense were darned. From the All-Star Game on, Mercer ranked among best offensive shortstops, and Marte's OPS was among the highest in all of baseball.