Pirates determined to challenge Cardinals
The Pittsburgh Pirates deserve more credit than the standings currently give them.
True, the Pirates are in second place in the National League Central. But they have Major League Baseball's second-best record (95-61). That record would lead every other division in baseball, except the one they're in -- the one with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Pirates will have a chance to do something about that with a three-game series against the Redbirds starting Monday night in Pittsburgh. Three games back, they'll need a sweep to tie up the race. That's asking a lot, but no matter how this race goes, the Bucs have had a remarkable regular season, that could lead to an even more remarkable postseason.
Sunday night, the Pirates had an eight-game winning streak broken in a 4-0 loss to the Cubs. They couldn't hit Jake Arrieta. But Pittsburgh's in good company in that regard, as it may very well have another chance at Arrieta in the Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser.
The Pirates won the three-game series in Chicago, and have a substantial 4 1/2-game lead over the Cubs for the NL's No. 1 Wild Card spot.
Even that understates what the Pirates have accomplished.
Since the end of May, Pittsburgh has been the best team in either league with a 69-37 record, good for a .651 winning percentage over nearly five months. The club has been better than the Cardinals over that period -- better than the red-hot Toronto Blue Jays, too.
And the thing is, none of this is a fluke. This record encompasses the two directions of the Pittsburgh franchise: upward and forward.
It's a terrific development, because not all that long ago, this was a club suffering through 20-straight losing seasons. The Bucs lost 90 games or more in seven consecutive losing seasons. The Pirates were singing the small-market blues.
But now executive vice president and general manager Neal Huntington and his staff have built the kind of organization in which sustainable success is more than a possibility -- it is a completely logical outcome.
Manager Clint Hurdle specializes in a relentless, yet substantive positive approach that gives his team a mentality in which success is the expected result. Hurdle has assembled a top-shelf coaching staff. Pitching coach Ray Searage, for instance, is increasingly being regarded as one of the best in the game.
The Pirates organization has produced some of the best talent in the game, as well. Andrew McCutchen, a first-round draft pick in 2005, was the NL Most Valuable Player in 2013, and he remains one of the Majors' most dynamic players.
Gerrit Cole, the top overall pick in the 2011 Draft, has matured into one of the big league's top pitchers (18-8, 2.60 ERA), and he only just turned 25.
Plus, the Pirates excel in picking up players who may be under-valued elsewhere. Starting pitcher Francisco Liriano, who signed as a free agent, would be solidly in that category. So would catcher Francisco Cervelli, who was acquired in a trade with the Yankees. Closer Mark Melancon, who was obtained in a trade with the Red Sox, may be this season's best example of all. Melancon has a Major League-leading 51 saves in 53 opportunities, a 1.95 ERA and a WHIP of 0.92.
It all sets up for the Pirates' third-straight postseason appearance. Those of us who were privileged enough to be at PNC Park on Oct. 1, 2013, saw the rebirth of the Pittsburgh franchise, with the loyal and fervent fan base completely in tune with the Bucs, as the Pirates defeated the Reds in a Wild Card Game. The Pirates went on to lose a dramatic Division Series in five games to the Cardinals, who in turn went on to win the NL pennant.
Last year, the Pirates lost the Wild Card Game, at home to San Francisco. But in that, they also lost to Madison Bumgarner, which is exactly what happened to everybody else who played the Giants last October.
This 2015 bunch is the best team Pittsburgh has produced in a long time. It may be too early for comparisons with the 1979 "We Are Family" World Series champions. Still, when these Pirates say that they are no longer satisfied with merely qualifying for the postseason, that their goal is a championship, they have shown enough that the rest of us can respectfully nod and pay attention.
These Pirates are no standard-issue second-place club.