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Pirates making believers of Steel City faithful

As club continues to win, fans are coming out to PNC Park

Excuse Pirates fans if they were a bit skeptical at the start of the season.

They have been denied the simple pleasure of a winning season -- much less a postseason appearance -- for two decades. During the last two years, they suffered through second-half fades that added to their cynicism.

Pirates fans, however, are forgiving.

When this year's Pirates started to give fans reason to believe that the tough finishes of the past two seasons were history, the seats began filling up at PNC Park.

The Pirates are currently one of three Major League teams with at least 70 wins, and this year, as opposed to the last two, they show no signs of slowing down in the final weeks of the season. Needing only 12 wins in their final 47 games to secure a winning season for the first time since 1992, the Bucs are more focused on ending that 20-year postseason drought.

This isn't 2011 or '12.

The Pirates were in first place in the National League Central on July 25 in 2011, then lost 43 of their final 62 games. They had back-to-back wins only three times over that stretch.

A year ago, Pittsburgh was 16 games above .500 on Aug.8, and lost 36 of its final 52 games, winning back-to-back games four times.

Needless to say, attendance at PNC Park faded just as quickly.

Not this year.

These Pirates entered Saturday in first place in the NL Central, four games ahead of St. Louis, and have won nine of their last 12 games.

Their success is reflected at the gate, too.

After welcoming a crowd of 30,000 or more only twice in their first 29 home dates -- one of which was Opening Day -- the Pirates have sold 30,000-plus tickets for 23 of their last 31, and enjoyed their only 10 sellouts since Opening Day. After averaging 23,641 tickets sold for their first 38 home games of the season, they have averaged 33,980 ever since.

The Pirates are now only 5,160 tickets sold behind last year's pace.

Since 1992

The Pirates won three consecutive NL East titles from 1990-92, but haven't won any division titles since -- the second-longest postseason drought in the Majors. Kansas City hasn't been to the postseason since 1985, when the Royals won the only World Series championship in franchise history. The only other teams that haven't been to the postseason in nine seasons or more are Toronto (1993), Seattle (2001) and Miami (2003).

By contrast, the Yankees lead with 17 postseason appearances in the last 20 years, followed by Atlanta (14), St. Louis (10), Boston (nine) and Cleveland (seven).

Saving grace

Yankees closer Mariano Rivera blew saves in back-to-back appearances -- at the White Sox on Wednesday and against the Tigers on Friday -- for the ninth time in his career. Baseball's all-time saves leader has never blown more than two save opportunities in a row.

The blown saves this week were the first time he had done that since April 19-24, 2011, at Toronto and Baltimore, and just the second time since April 2007. Rivera failed in back-to-back save situations twice in a season only once in his career -- 1997, the year he became the Yankees' closer. He blew saves Aug. 21-23 at Anaheim and Seattle, and April 8-11 at Anaheim and against Oakland.

Rivera is one of 29 pitchers who have at least 15 save opportunities this season, and only four of those 29 have fewer than two blown saves -- Jason Grilli of Pittsburgh has converted 30 of 31 opportunities, Grant Balfour of Oakland 29 of 30, Huston Street of San Diego 21 of 22, and Colorado's Rafael Betancourt 15 of 16. Joaquin Benoit of Detroit (14-for-14) and Francisco Rodriguez, now with Baltimore (10-for-10), have the most saves without a failure this season.

He was No. 1

Luke Hochevar was the first player taken in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, but he was no instant success. Kansas City, however, was reluctant to discard the right-hander because the brass felt he had too much potential -- even if his efforts as a starting pitcher didn't show that.

Instead of releasing Hochevar this year, the Royals decided to see what would happen if he moved to the bullpen. Good idea. Hochevar, who made one relief appearance in five full big league seasons, has found a home. After going 38-59 with a 5.44 ERA as a starter, he is 3-1 with a 1.80 ERA and two saves this season.

He has allowed right-handers to hit .117 -- 128 points lower than the career average against him prior to this year. Left-handers have hit .228 -- a 62-point drop from the average they had prior to this season.

Good cause

Jay Horwitz, the Mets' vice president of public relations and a member of the team's PR department since April 1, 1980, will be honored with a bobblehead on Aug. 23. Horwitz initially declined the suggestion, but agreed when it was decided that a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales from the Social Media Night promotion would be donated to a fund for Shannon Forde, the senior director of media relations, who is battling breast cancer. Tickets are available on the Mets' website.


• The Dodgers have gone 43 games without losing back-to-back games heading into Saturday -- eight shy of the club record set in 1953, when the team was still in Brooklyn. The last back-to-back losses were June 20-21 against San Diego.

• Tampa Bay became the 30th of the 30 big league teams to play at Dodger Stadium on Friday night.

• Angels right-hander Jered Weaver will go into his Tuesday start at Yankee Stadium having gone 1,439 days since issuing his last intentional walk -- Sept. 4, 2009, to Mark Teahen in the fourth inning of a game in Kansas City. He has gone 786 innings in 118 starts since that free pass to Teahen.

Out of left field

Dodger starter Zack Greinke takes a .405 average into Saturday's game, 28 points shy of the record Walter Johnson set in 1925 for a pitcher's full-season batting average. The only other pitcher with a minimum of 15 at-bats hitting .300 or better is Tyler Chatwood of Colorado (.333). Travis Wood of the Cubs is third among pitchers at .267. At the other extreme, Jeremy Hefner of the Mets is 0-for-32, Jaime Garcia of the Cardinals 0-for-21 and Brandon McCarthy of the D-backs 0-for-18.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for