Wednesday, September 24, 2014

This Pirates run different, better

There will never be another 2013 for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans. There will never be another 20 straight losing seasons, at least one would hope.
There will never be that same magical, surreal quality that last year’s run to the playoffs had.
That’s okay, too. This season, and the feeling that has accompanied it, has been better, more fun.
For one thing, the Pirates are doing what they’re doing with the weight of expectations squarely on them. A 94 win season, while it creates joy and buries forever the ugliest losing streak in American professional sports history, also creates the idea that better things are on the horizon, no matter how bad recent history might be.
This year has also seen the Bucs overcome more adversity. Francisco Liriano was injured and a shell of himself until the All-Star break. The Pirates found a way to overcome it. Gerrit Cole has been hurt as well, and his performance when healthy has been uneven. The Pirates’ rotation survived, barely, in large part due to the contributions of Jeff Locke, Vance Worley, and even at times Brandon Cumpton.
Pedro Alvarez has suffered through injuries of late, and was a massive disappointment in the field, and not up to last year’s standards at the plate. The Pirates plugged in Josh Harrison, after moving him all over the place on the field, and he may well go from super utility player to batting champion.
Jason Grilli blew up, badly, and was traded. His replacement was somehow worse. Even after Mark Melancon stabilized the closer’s position, and Tony Watson provided high level work in the eighth inning, the team’s “bridge” guy, Justin Wilson, was disappointing. Enter John Holdzkom, plucked from somewhere well outside of the middle of nowhere, a real-life Sidd Finch. Since his arrival, the bullpen has been excellent.
Last year’s Pirates were under .500 for the final time on April 18, at 7-8. They did not lose more than four games in a row all season long. They cruised to a playoff spot, and were 21 games over .500 at the halfway mark of the season. The collective regional catharsis came with barely a hint of worry, and hardly ever a sense of dread.
This year? Well, the Pirates were 18-26 and a flat out bad baseball team in mid-May. Some idiot columnist/radio host whose name rhymes with “This Cruller” pronounced the season over at that point. The Pirates clawed back, and they did so the hard way, only recently notching their first five game winning streak of the season. They weathered a seven and four game losing streaks, respectively, during a crucial time of year.
If the 2013 regular season was mostly a pleasure cruise on the way to putting history in the rearview mirror for good, the 2014 season has been a battle in the trenches, a constant struggle to gain a foothold that only recently abated, and even then, only a little.
It has also been a thrill-a-minute roller coaster ride. Regular season games have taken on the intensity of the post-season, especially of late.
Breaking a 20 year drought with an emphatic 94 win season was a great story and an unforgettable journey for long-suffering fans of this team. One would think it impossible to top that narrative.
The 2014 Pirates have. Against all odds, and on the backs of largely unheralded or flat out unknown players, they are not only headed for the playoffs again, but they might just bring another wild card game—and more—back to PNC Park.
Hollywood should take notes. When it comes to the Bucs, the sequel has been better than the original.
And the show isn’t over yet.

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