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New to playoff party, Pirates figure to stay a while

Bucs hoping first postseason berth in 21 years the first of many to come

CINCINNATI -- Look up the Pirates' horoscope and, whichever their moon is, it would definitely say "rising."

The 2013 Bucs burst out of their two-decade depression like only one other team in Major League history has in shedding a protracted string of losing seasons. Last season's Orioles -- after 14 losing seasons -- were the first to break through the .500 ceiling after more than 10 consecutive losing campaigns and go all the way to 90-plus wins and into the postseason clearing.

This, however, wasn't a case of going all in for a flash of glory, the future be damned. Instead it was the payoff for a meticulous agenda designed to bring, and keep, the Bucs out of irrelevance.

The Pirates' 2013 postseason journey could be short-lived. We don't know whether they'll take, or miss, that first step, which most likely will be the National League Wild Card Game on Tuesday against the Reds -- the history of first-time playoff teams is not encouraging. But their new era of contention will go on.

The core of the team, whose force feeding began during the 105-loss season of 2010, remains young, still south of what is considered prime baseball age. There is more of a "last hurrah" feel on the pitching staff -- the leader, if no longer ace in the classic sense, is 36 (A.J. Burnett ), and the closer will soon turn 37 (Jason Grilli ). But there is a cache of young pitching talent on the horizon, both already in-house and on the farms, headlined by Jameson Taillon.

Pittsburgh's long-range plans, and the Pirates' discipline to stick to them, have been validated by Gerrit Cole's handling and arrival. The 2011 overall No. 1 Draft pick may not have been given the big league ball as early as some -- including Cole himself -- may have wanted it, but when he got it, he knew what to do with it.

The rest of the team came gradually -- from those 57 wins in 2010 to 72 to 79 to now 90-plus -- but Cole floored the pedal when he got the keys. Although he did not make his debut until the Pirates' 64th game, he wound up tied for second on the staff with 10 wins. Cole really turned on the jets in September, his postseason status evolving from possible exclusion to perhaps relief work to the rotation as he went 4-0 in the month with a 1.69 ERA.

"I'm sure I'll sit back and look at all of it when it's all said and done and the season is over ... at the end of October, hopefully," Cole said of his emergence.

Even if it ends earlier in October for the Bucs, it will still only be a beginning. As satisfying as their bottom line became, the Pirates did not get there playing at their optimum, so they should actually keep getting better. They did not reach their ceiling, certainly not on offense.

Scratching that 20-year itch could become the stimulus for continuing improvement. The ongoing losing streak was a tremendous burden on players, without them even realizing it. As young as they were, they could disclaim responsibility for it, but they could not shut their ears to the nonstop talk about it. It grew into their wall -- past it, they can go on and work on their own story.

What Andrew McCutchen had said about the mood following this season's postseason clincher also applies to the seasons following this one: "We should be more relaxed, and it's easier to play on a higher level in that state."

The Pirates rank ninth in the NL in scoring and hit more than 100 points worse with men in scoring position (.229) than a Cardinals team (.330) they almost ran down in the NL Central. That shortcoming in key situations is highlighted by their No. 29 ranking among the 30 Major League teams in sacrifice flies.

McCutchen clearly has found his level, and it's quite high. But an argument can be made that even as this team persevered its way into October, no one else has yet reached his potential. That even includes Pedro Alvarez, who despite competing for a home run crown did not display a new maturity as a hitter until September; Starling Marte, who was bright but is sill a rising star; and certainly Neil Walker, who had to get past a a string of nagging injuries to become a late-season factor. And most definitely Jose Tabata, who emerged as the possible right fielder in an outfield that could remain intact for a decade.

Success is "challenging to build, and even more challenging to sustain," said general manager Neal Huntington, who pulled off late August moves for a trio of old salts (Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau, John Buck ) in very now-oriented deals. "But we are a team that always has to have its eyes on the future. We can't make a habit of those types of deals."

But the Pirates can make a habit of winning. The Bucs desperately want to prolong the 2013 habit at least through this weekend, to bring the Wild Card Game to Pittsburgh. For reasons both practical, getting to host that do-or-die playoff game, and emotional.

For 21 years, Pirates fans have waited and wished for, dreamt of a playoff-caliber team. Now they would like the opportunity to actually see that team in person.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.
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