Pirates surprise experts, fans with success

By Greg Trietley

Sporting News had them in last place. CBS Sports had them there. Three different Yahoo experts… Sporting News had them in last place. CBS Sports had them there. Three different Yahoo experts did too.

But here are the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 19, 51-44 heading into the final game of the Reds series, and in a four-way battle with the Brewers, Reds and Cardinals for the NL Central crown.

“There comes a point and time in your athletic career as individuals when you just believe in what you want to believe in,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said after a 5-3 Independence Day win over Houston. “We don’t pay attention to distractions. We don’t pay attention to outside noise. We’re not overly concerned about the beat on the street or the vibe anywhere else.”

Entering the second game of the series with the Reds, the Pirates sit at the top of the NL Central, one game ahead of Milwaukee (51-46) and a game a half head of St. Louis (50-46) for the division lead. Suddenly, after 18 consecutive losing seasons, the idea of Pittsburgh finishing with a winning record, and maybe even making the playoffs, doesn’t seem so crazy.

The PNC Park’s crowds are suddenly larger.

Through 42 home games, attendance is up 10.4 percent, according to Lou DePaoli, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the Pirates. That includes 10 sellouts thus far in the season.The Pirates had seven sellouts all of last year.

“We have a good shot of selling out every Saturday for the rest of the season,” DePaoli said Thursday. “We’re talking about pretty substantial growth.”

And the fans aren’t just there for fireworks and pieorogie races anymore. There’s excited chatter from people talking in the stands and fans standing to cheer when the Pirates wrap up another home victory,

If the Pirates can keep it up, the Steel City might just turn into a baseball town again. But what happened to cause the drastic turnaround? It’s not money, as Pittsburgh’s $46 million payroll is fourth to last in the Major League.

Oddly enough, in a year when finishing better than last would best the prediction of most pundits, the Pirates have surged into postseason contention, and they’ve done it with pitching. In 2010, the Pirates rotation finished last in the league with an ERA of 5.00.

So far this year, a starting rotation of largely unproven pitchers — Kevin Correia, Paul Maholm, James McDonald, Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens — has helped give the Pirates an NL Central-best ERA of 3.40. That’s good for eighth in the Major League.

Correia is tied for fifth in the majors with 11 wins. Karstens — acquired in 2008 with Jose Tábata in a trade that sent Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte to the Yankees — is seventh in ERA (2.34).

In his July 5 outing against Houston, Karstens scattered seven hits in seven innings, allowing one run and driving in one with a squeeze bunt in the sixth.

“I think he averaged three balls per inning,” Hurdle said after the 5-1 win. “On top of that, he puts down a squeeze bunt. He’s a backyard ballplayer. He’s not the kind of guy scouts see and drool over. He’s not 6-foot-4, 215 and cut, but he knows how to play the game.”

And as impressive as the starters have been, the All-Star on the mound for Pittsburgh this year has been closer Joel Hanrahan, who is 28 for 29 in save attempts. In those 28 appearances, he has allowed a total of six earned runs.

“I’m just being aggressive,” Hanrahan said about the way he attacks hitters after a June 22 win against Baltimore in which he pitched a perfect ninth. “I’ve got a big body, so I’m using it.”

Hurdle compared Hanrahan to Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage.

“He’s getting the ball to both sides. He’s keeping it down,” Hurdle said in a post-game press conference on June 22. “It’s as good a run as I’ve seen in a very long time out of the bullpen. As everybody in the bullpen knows what their job is, it’s just to get the ball to Joel.”

As of July 19, , Pittsburgh needs  six more wins to match its total of 57 from all of 2010. And just as the franchise is approaching last year’s full-season marks, so too is Andrew McCutchen.

Coming off 16 home runs and 56 RBI in 154 games in 2010, the center fielder has 14 home runs and 58 RBI this year in half the time, in addition to a .277 average with 15 steals.

Hurdle said that “everybody in the process whiffed” in passing over McCutchen for the National League All-Star Team. McCutchen was eventually added to the roster as a replacement for injured Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun.

“If you really sit down and you’re paying attention to what’s going on, it’s three-and-a-half months full of work to get a good look at somebody.” Hurdle said on July 4. “The numbers don’t lie … This will be the last year where the Pirates aren’t, the people maybe aren’t a little bit more aware of what’s going on in Pittsburgh.”

Indeed, after early apprehension, fans are beginning to flock to PNC Park to watch McCutchen and Pittsburgh. The young talent that Pirates officials promised fans for so long is making an impact on the field and catching the attention of baseball fans in the Steel City and across the country.

Neil Walker, in his second season in the Major Leagues, is playing like a verteran. A reliable bat in the line-up, Walker is batting .277 with a team-leading 62 RBI.

And even as the Pirates battle injuries to starters like Ryan Doumit, Ronny Cedeno and Jose Tabata, young players like rookie outfielder Alex Presley are making an impact. Presley is batting .352 with 25 hits in 71 at bats since being called up on June 28.

The experience that Presley. backup catcher Michael McKenry and backup infielder Chase D’Arnaud are gaining due to injuries could add depth to the Pirates’ roster as the season progresses.

That growth has been fueled by the play on the field, especially in front of large crowds. Pittsburgh is 6-2 in sellouts and won sold-out series at home against both Philadelphia and Boston in June. It remains to be seen if the Pirates can keep up the momentum they’ve gained in so-far promising season.

But Pittsburgh has definitely given fans a reason to hope.

“We beat two out of three each team that was supposed to be the favorites in the World Series,” DePaoli said. “That says something to get people’s attention.”