Friday, September 19, 2014

The series that will define these Pirates

Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014, 10:21 p.m.

Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates closer Mark Melancon celebrates after defeating the Red Sox on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014, at PNC Park.

Most people get it wrong about Neil Walker. Way wrong. So wrong that maybe we've all missed the point.

Yes, Walker is a Pittsburgh kid playing for the Pirates. No, that's not good enough.

“Winning a World Series… with the Pirates,” Walker said. “That's the dream.”

Walker offered that up late in July, and at that point he might as well have been dreaming.

The Pirates weren't a championship club then. They might not be now.

We'll learn a lot about what they are this weekend.

We'll learn a lot about who we are as a baseball city, too.

Sellouts aren't good enough for these next three games. “Blackout” crowds should pack PNC Park, because Pirates fans might not otherwise get a chance to recreate the magical playoff atmosphere from last October.

Also, this series basically represents the playoffs. So, go crazy folks.

The winner of the three games between the Pirates and Brewers won't lock down the National League's second wild-card slot, but that team will take a significant step toward playing in baseball's postseason.
The loser will need to regroup for a stressful final-week push.

The Pirates are playing arguably their best baseball. They've won four consecutive series since losing three in a row at St. Louis.

None of those victories have come against playoff contenders.

The Brewers are contending.

The Brewers are good.

The Brewers could damage more than the Pirates' playoff hopes. They could punish fans who have started daring to believe in bigger things than just a one-and-done playoff game.

Let's not ignore what everybody has spent the past week thinking:

The Pirates could beat any team in an up-for-grabs National League. Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole measure against any 1-2 pitching punch. The bullpen is markedly better since the arrivals of veteran John Axford and cult-hero John Holdzkom. Russell Martin is destined to catch a very important final strike. Walker's destiny is storybook stuff. Lesser clubs managed by Clint Hurdle have turned a September surge into an October to remember. Josh Harrison is having one of those seasons. Andrew McCutchen is ready to take that step.

Did I miss anything?

It feels like we're all missing something.

The Pirates' story seems to lack a greater appreciation from Pittsburghers, as if meaningful baseball late in the summer — once the one thing everybody wanted to witness — has already become an old habit, as if winning seasons are already blasé.

This is only the ninth winning season the Pirates have had since 1979. It's OK to live in a moment when 26 of the last 35 summers have turned out lousy.

It's also OK to admit you're wrong, as most people have been about this management team.

General manager Neal Huntington and his staff know what they're doing. Any opinion otherwise lacks factual support.

The farm system is stocked. Toughness is instilled in homegrown players. Young stars have long contracts. Ridiculous trades weren't made.

I thought going all in for Jon Lester was a good idea. He went to Oakland. How's that working out for the Athletics?

All anybody needs to know about the Pirates is that they were once easily buried by bad Aprils. Now, they're the guys who shrug off everything.

The Pirates might be going back to the playoffs with four new positional regulars and a different closer and setup reliever. They might be going back to the playoffs after playing long stretches without Liriano, Cole and fellow starter Charlie Morton. They might be going back to the playoffs after losing seven straight games in August.

They might be going back to the playoffs!

Isn't that enough?

Not for Walker. He wants it all.

Friday night is the time to start taking it.

The Brewers are the fitting opponent because they've spent the better part of the past decade bullying the Pirates.

We've all known bullies. We all know what the Pirates must do to the Brewers.

Come Sunday night, Pittsburgh's kids will be getting ready for another week of school and by then the Pirates may have educated all of us on the danger in getting ahead of ourselves.

Of course, they also might have taught us that it's all right to keep dreaming.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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