'Gritty' Bucs battle to their first 5-0 start since 1983

April 2nd, 2024

WASHINGTON -- Because they are such an old and storied franchise, the Pirates can find that they have a hard time making club history. That was true last year, when they capped one of their best Aprils in decades with a trip to the nation’s capital.

It’s true again as the Bucs opened this April having already, only five games into 2024, made some club history of their own.

It’s been 40 years since a Pittsburgh club opened a season as flawlessly as this season’s Pirates, who rallied for an 8-4 win over the Nationals and a 5-0 start on Monday at Nationals Park.

Not only were the Bucs the first team to five wins this year and one of only four still-unbeaten MLB clubs through Monday's action, this is only the sixth time in their 143-year history they’ve opened 5-0, and first since 1983.

“The vibes are great,” leadoff hitter Connor Joe said. “Everyone is building on the pressure that we’re putting on pitchers, and that’s carrying over to the next at-bat. We’re playing gritty baseball right now and that’s contagious.”

After they barraged their way to a four-game sweep in Miami over the weekend on the strength of their offense, the Pirates on Monday used small ball and timely hitting to supplement Marco Gonzales’ solid debut before breaking the game open late.

Two bunts laid the foundation for what became Pittsburgh’s game-breaking three-run rally in the eighth, with Joe, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Andrew McCutchen all logging run-scoring hits in the decisive frame.

Bryan Reynolds added a two-run double in the ninth and Ryder Ryan and Aroldis Chapman locked down the final six outs to secure Pittsburgh’s best five-game start in 41 years.

“It means a ton, just for the fact of how we’ve played -- everybody’s contributed and we’ve played full games,” manager Derek Shelton said. “I think there is significance to getting off to a good start. … We’ve talked a lot about what our intent should be, and we’ve executed that in our first five games.”

Making his first start since May 28 of last season due to a nerve injury in his left forearm, Marco Gonzales logged five-plus solid innings in his Bucs debut before giving way to Roansy Contreras, who recorded three big outs in the sixth to strand two runners and preserve a two-run lead.

But Conteras served up Riley Adams’ game-tying two-run homer an inning later, before Pittsburgh responded with five runs in the final two frames.

Even accounting for their late-inning hiccups against Washington, Pittsburgh’s 1.85 bullpen ERA through five games is by far the best in the National League.

“Our guys just don’t give in,” Gonzales said.

For these Pirates, this is not unfamiliar territory. They were arguably the surprise of baseball for much of the first half in 2023, when they won 20 of 28 to begin the year and led the NL Central as late as June 15 -- but faded after that and finished 10 games under .500 (76-86).

The Bucs are only five games in this time around. But in some ways, their hot start to 2024 makes more sense. Though nobody’s World Series favorite entering the year, they are coming off a 14-win improvement campaign and might just be coming into their own -- not a dissimilar spot the long-rebuilding Orioles were in organizationally at this time a year ago.

Five years in, Shelton’s culture seems established. General manager Ben Cherington’s drafting and development have raised the organization's talent floor. There are young, dynamic players (Oneil Cruz, Henry Davis, Hayes) all over the field and a mix of established veterans (Reynolds, McCutchen, David Bednar, Chapman) on both sides of the ball.

And so far, they’re getting contributions from … just about everyone. They’re averaging 7+ runs per game in their five wins. Six starters had multi-hit games against the Nationals and five had at least one RBI; 12 of the 13 Pirates with at least one plate appearance this season have already driven in at least one run.

“Our depth is better, and it’s why we feel [this] is more sustainable,” Shelton said. “There are two factors to it -- the first one is having more depth. The second is: We’ve been really intentional with the veterans we’ve added to this group.

“Not only [considering] who they are, how they mentor and how talented they are. But that they’ve been on winning teams.”

It’s only five games in. But so far, that’s what the Pirates are. Winning is all they do.