Commentary

The Pirates have hope. Again. Maybe.

They've seen this movie before, but the ending might really be different this time.

Originally Published: July 2, 2013
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

When the Braves' Sid Bream slid home safely just ahead of Barry Bonds' throw in the bottom of the ninth inning to defeat the Pirates in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, Neil Walker began sobbing on the couch of his family's home in the Pittsburgh suburb of Gibsonia. He sobbed so long his brothers started making fun of him.

But why wouldn't a 7-year-old boy cry when his team loses like that? For that matter, why wouldn't a 47-year-old man or even a 77-year-old man cry over the Pirates that night? For the third year in a row, they had come heart-wrenchingly close to the World Series, only to lose. In 1990, they lost in six games to the Reds in the NLCS. In 1991, they had a 3-2 lead in the NLCS and still lost to Atlanta. And in 1992, they took a 2-0 lead into the ninth inning of Game 7 … and lost again.

[+] EnlargeNeil Walker
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesNeil Walker and the Pirates finally seem to be pointing toward a brighter future.

Thanks to a record 20 consecutive losing seasons since then, the worst part of that crushing Bream-game defeat is that it remains the high point of the Pirates' past two decades.

"That's the truth of the matter," Walker said. "For me, in particular, this whole thing is coming full circle -- being drafted by the Pirates and coming up in the system. My biggest goal has always been to win a World Series and be part of a team that brings winning baseball back to Pittsburgh.

"Because the fan base is so incredible. I get to see it firsthand in the offseason with the Steelers and the Penguins and even with Pitt and Penn State. The fan base is dying for a winner [in baseball], and we're getting really close to where we need to be."

They certainly are. As they begin their first series of July on Tuesday at home against the Phillies, the Pirates have the best record in baseball (51-30) and a two-game lead over the Cardinals in the NL Central Division, and they're on a nine-game winning streak. According to Elias, 57 previous teams have been 21 games above .500 at the midway point, and none of those teams ended with a losing record.

And as the Pirates get off the floor, the fans are getting off the couch, if cautiously.

"The fans are coming out," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Sure, there are always going to be Chicken Littles, because that's cool for some people. And until you prove something, you haven't proved it. But we're just about halfway there. We like where we are. We understand we have more hard work to do and know that we have to finish stronger than we started."

As well as the Pirates are playing, you can't blame fans for being a little leery after the past two seasons. In 2011, Pittsburgh was tied for first place as late as July 24 before losing 12 of its next 13 games en route to finishing 72-90, 24 games out of first. Last season was even more disappointing. The Pirates were briefly tied for first place after the All-Star break and were a season-high 16 games above .500 on August 8. It seemed certain they would finally break their 19-season losing streak.

They went 16-36 the rest of the way and finished under .500 for the 20th year in a row.

[+] EnlargeJeff Locke
Joe Sargent/Getty ImagesJeff Locke isn't a household name. Yet. But he's a big reason why the Pirates are winning.

"If you start thinking down the road to the playoffs, that's when you get in trouble," said veteran Brandon Inge, who joined the Pirates this season. "And I think that's what they did last year. They had a chance, and then they started thinking too far down the road and didn't concentrate on 'today.' "

If so -- and there is little question the Pirates felt the pressure of the losing streak as they struggled down the stretch -- Hurdle is confident that this year's team is better for having endured that.

"It's just like life. I really believe that if you pay attention to your past, you'll learn from it and be able to apply it to your future," Hurdle said. "I believe we prepare for our future through our past -- on and off the field. I believe that with all my heart. I believe some of the painful lessons we learned the last couple years will be beneficial for us this season."

"Anytime you have some success and then you get dragged through the mud and beat up a little, it makes you resilient and a little stronger," Walker says. "You're better at handling adversity, better at handling tough situations. That's kind of been our M.O. so far this year. Anytime we've gotten down or had a tough stretch, we've been able to turn the page and focus more day to day and not dwell on the past. . . . We're really focusing on that daily goal of getting the win."

Hurdle says this is the deepest, most talented team he's managed in Pittsburgh, and that is certainly true in regard to the pitching. Through June, the Pirates led the majors in team ERA (3.11) and opponents' batting average (.225). The starting rotation is paced by Francisco Liriano (who has bounced back from multiple injuries), rookie Gerrit Cole and one of the best pitchers you rarely hear about, Jeff Locke. In his first full season, Locke, who is scheduled to start Tuesday night against Philadelphia, is 7-1 with a 2.06 ERA and has allowed just 66 hits in 96 1/3 innings (though he also has walked 41 batters).

"His pace, rhythm and tempo are all something you would expect from a pitcher with more experience," Hurdle says of Locke. "He spends a lot of time on the dirt. A lot of times young pitchers get in trouble, and they spend a lot of time on the grass waiting for baserunners to simply disappear. He just knows he has to make pitches so he stays spot on task."

[+] EnlargeClint Hurdle
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesWhy is this man smiling? Because he's Clint Hurdle, manager of the team with the best record in baseball.

Pittsburgh isn't faring as well at the plate, where it is 20th in runs scored. Andrew McCutchen, who hit .327 with 31 home runs as an MVP candidate last year, has dropped to .292 with nine home runs and nearly twice as many strikeouts as walks this year. But third baseman Pedro Alvarez has 20 home runs, and the Pirates are one of just six National League teams with a positive run differential.

They also are faring significantly better in two particular areas -- performance in road games and after off days. They are 23-17 on the road and 10-0 after off days. Hurdle attributes the latter to better use of those days, using them to rest, recover and get ready for the next game.

Pittsburgh fans are beginning to recover as well from decades of losing. While attendance was understandably low the first two months of the season -- the Pirates drew just 53,000 combined fans for a four-game series against the Brewers in May -- it has picked up in recent weeks as the team keeps winning. They averaged 37,000 per game for a weekend series against the Dodgers two weeks ago and similar crowds last weekend against the Brewers.

"The town is getting ready to explode," Pittsburgh sports radio host Vinnie Richichi says. "The park is filling up. There are more people wearing Pirates gear. We're getting more callers. And fewer of them call to complain and more call to say, 'Hey, this is pretty good, now.' "

With the season now officially half over, two big questions remain for the Pirates. One, how good can "pretty good" be? And two, can they sustain their success and finally position themselves to have their fans bouncing on their couches rather than sobbing into the cushions in October? McCutchen says they can.

"We're not a young team anymore," McCutchen says. "It's not about, 'Well, they're still young; they have time to grow.' It's not about that. It's about guys who've been here before, guys who've played here before and now it's just about showing up and getting the job done. And that's what we've been doing."

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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