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Bucs' renaissance can be completed with playoff berth

After teasing with hot starts last two seasons, Pittsburgh has goods to make run

PITTSBURGH -- There is an old expression in sports for situations when a team is doing something unexpectedly well:

"Stop the season."

If they were to stop this baseball season at the midway point, and had done the same each of the previous two seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates would be making their third consecutive playoff appearance.

Now what?

The Bucs are again stirring up ghosts of their storied past. They are again in the hunt not only for a winning record, but for October baseball, and are again playing to keep a midsummer night's dream from turning into early autumn's nightmare.

If their recent history is redundant, so is the leading question posed by everyone to manager Clint Hurdle and his players for weeks: "Why will it be different this time?"

"This group is uncommon," Hurdle said, giving the simple answer. "Common gets you in the middle of the pack, under the bar."

It cannot be easy for the players to shut out the past, but they are convinced that, in this regard, ignorance is bliss. At the same time, they get the so-called "outside noise."

First-half awards
MVP: Starling Marte He jump-starts the offense; without him lighting the fuse, there's been little action.
Cy Young: Francisco Liriano Biggest arm in MLB's stingiest rotation.
Rookie: Justin Wilson Versatile arm has filled many roles, all well, in top-notch bullpen.
Top reliever: Mark Melancon With apologies to fellow All-Star Jason Grilli, he has been surest thing out of that 'pen.

"I understand the frustration outside the locker room, but we don't even think about that," said A.J. Burnett, the rotation elder. "We're over it. We don't want to hear any more of that. We think about the present and how good of a ballclub we are.

"I think it's natural, from the past here, it's part of it. But we're in a good spot, and everybody in this locker room believes that. Until this locker room loses faith, then I'll worry. There's no need to panic."

"We're just focused on today," said Andrew McCutchen, "which is what we've been doing all season to get us to this point. We only focus on the game we have in front of us. We're not thinking about the future."

That has been the season-long direction from Hurdle, for whom the one-day-at-a-time approach is natural, and even personal.

"As an alcoholic," said the 55-year-old manager, allowing a rare public glimpse into his past, "I've got 15 years of sobriety, one day at time. That's how we take care of our business."

Yet, it might be worth thinking ahead, for a very sound reason: The next 2 1/2 months could be even better than the past 3 1/2 months. Unlike last season's Pirates, who jumped totally out of character for two months to slug their way into the National League Central race, these Bucs have actually underachieved thus far.

With the exception of Pedro Alvarez having plugged in his power earlier, the offense has been quite modest, ranking near the league's bottom in scoring. Alvarez's 24 homers represent 27 percent of the team's total. McCutchen is the lone .300 hitter -- at .302 -- and he's 60 points below the mark he took into last year's All-Star Game. Even their lead ignitor, Starling Marte, is only tied for seventh in the NL with his team-leading 59 runs scored.

Players to watch in second half
Jose Tabata His ongoing resurgence can raise Pirates' lineup to another level.
Wandy Rodriguez The rotation depth is fine, but they'll need his veteran arm down the stretch.
Andrew McCutchen No one -- absolutely no one -- can carry a team like Cutch when he's on fire.

The correct conclusion is that pitching has carried this club. But on the rotation side, it has been a patchwork effort, and it is easy to expect even more from the starters going forward.

The evidence is that Burnett and lefty Wandy Rodriguez, wearing Hurdle's label of "the best 1-2 I have ever had," have combined for all of 10 wins. Lefties younger and older, Jeff Locke and Francisco Liriano, have accepted the reins. Resurgent veteran Charlie Morton and high-ceiling prospect Gerrit Cole starred in the midseason transformation of the rotation. But if those other starters only have to follow in the wake of a strong stretch by veterans Burnett and Rodriguez -- if he makes it back from a forearm issue -- all the better.

The red flag on the mound covers the bullpen, although the exceptional and reliable relievers have yet to give any reason for concern. There are so many measures of how remarkable they have been, but it can be boiled down to two achievements:

The pair of All-Star one-inning specialists, setup man Mark Melancon and closer Jason Grilli, have a collective 1.38 ERA in 85 innings, with 31 saves in 33 opportunities.

And the other relievers have combined to strand 82 percent of inherited runners. Ten teams in the last 22 seasons had a strand rate of at least 77 percent -- they averaged 97 wins.

The collective workload, however, is a concern. Because of its importance, if the bullpen goes bad, the rest of the team could go with it.

That is why, although many people can't understand why he would bother with such a team strength, relievers are in general manager Neal Huntington's pre-Trade Deadline discussions.

"Whether it's a bat, a starting pitcher, bench help or a reliever, we have to look for the best way to help this club," Huntington said. "So our goal is to exhaustively search for ways to make this club better."

Because, as Huntington noted, "They don't celebrate half-seasons."

If they did, the Pirates would be celebrating a playoff three-peat. Instead, they are still chasing the carrot.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.
Read More: Pittsburgh Pirates, A.J. Burnett, Andrew McCutchen