More reasons than ever to believe in the Pittsburgh Pirates

The past two years saw the Pittsburgh Pirates enter the second halves of the 2011 and 2012 seasons in contention for not just the franchise’s first winning season since 1992, but also a playoff spot. Everyone knows how those seasons ended, with the 2011 team at 72-90 and its 2012 counterpart falling from 16 games above .500 in July to a 79-83 finish.

As of July 14, 2013, the Pirates’ record sat at 56-37, 19 games over .500, leaving the team firmly in control of a wild-card spot and closely trailing the St. Louis Cardinals, who lead the National League Central Division.

For context, the 2010 Pirates won 57 games all season.

At the All-Star break, as the Pirates send five players to represent Pittsburgh baseball to Citi Field, the primary concern still lies in Pittsburgh, as nothing will be enough to assuage the concerns of Pirates fans until the Pirates record their 82nd win.

But there are significant reasons to believe that will happen this year.

First and foremost, the Pirates’ bullpen has been the strength of the team and should continue to be a strength. All season, the bullpen has kept the team in games and has had what manager Clint Hurdle describes as a “settling effect” on hitters.

“I think our hitters feel that, once our bullpen gets in, there’s a settling effect. I think there’s a confidence factor,” Hurdle said.

As for its own performance, the bullpen has compiled a 2.79 earned run average, allowed opposing hitters to hit just .209 and stranded 81.8 percent of runners — the best mark in Major League Baseball since the dead-ball era of the early 20th century.

It’s a bullpen that sent Mark Melancon and NL saves leader Jason Grilli to the All-Star Game. The tandem has helped Pittsburgh to a 42-2 record when leading after seven innings.

“It’s been like that since Game 1,” center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. “It’s not like anything’s changed or gotten better. They’ve been consistent this whole year … just being able to shut it down.”

Pedro Alvarez

A player who Pirates fans booed for the first two months of the season now receives cheers louder than the boos that rained down on David Wright at PNC Park last weekend — yes, the same player who initially snubbed Alvarez for the Home Run Derby.

Another one of the Pirates’ five All-Stars, Alvarez delivered arguably the best month of his career in June, batting .309 with 10 home runs and compiling an insanely high on-base plus slugging percentage of 1.060.

“You’re watching, at times, him lay off more pitches that he had a tendency to chase early. He’s just growing. He continues to grow as a power hitter, and he expects a lot out of himself,” Hurdle said.

As a result of those expectations, Alvarez has seemingly developed into the clean-up hitter Pirates fans envisioned him becoming when the team selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 MLB Draft. This year, Alvarez enters the All-Star break with 24 home runs and an OPS of .830.

While McCutchen is having another solid season, hitting more than .300 in the third spot in the Pirates’ lineup, and Starling Marte has emerged as one of baseball’s best leadoff men, the biggest difference is Alvarez. The continued success of Alvarez will be vital to the Pirates, not just in winning 82 games, but in making the playoffs as well.


But there are 162 games in a major-league season, and while the 56-37 record through 93 games has Pirates fans flocking to PNC Park, there’s still plenty of work to be done in the final 69 games of the year. Take last season for example, which saw the Pirates suffer one of the worst collapses in baseball history.

But the current crop of Pirates are aware of it. Just ask anyone in the clubhouse.

“We’ve grown up together, we’ve learned together, we’ve taken some lumps together, we’ve enjoyed some success together,” Hurdle said. “We’re pleased, we’re not satisfied. There’s not a man in there that’s satisfied.”

For the 37-year-old closer, Jason Grilli, a first-time All-Star after 13 seasons in the major leagues, the goal is the same as it’s been since spring training.  

“Our goals are the same since training camp,” Grilli said. “We’re just trying to win a World Series.”