By Will Graves
April 2, 2016
PNC Park ground crew member Matt Gerhardt paints the field, Wednesday, March 30, 2016, in preparation for the 2016 Major League Baseball season opening series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals, Sunday, April 3, 2016 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Pirates have spent the last three years making believers out of everybody, even the schedule makers.
The team that toiled in national anonymity for two decades will bat leadoff for Major League Baseball on Sunday when the Pirates host rival St. Louis in the opening game of the 2016 regular season. The significance isn't lost on a club that has undergone a pragmatic and thorough transformation under relentlessly optimistic manager Clint Hurdle, a ride that includes three consecutive playoff berths and the second-best record in the majors since the start of 2013.
''We're getting the kind of recognition as an organization that I don't think we've gotten a much in the past,'' pitcher Jeff Locke said. ''Even as successful as we've been the last three years, really you can say it has been coming on for the last five years. This organization has really changed its face a lot.''
There's no need to convince the three-time defending NL Central champion Cardinals, who will send out ace Adam Wainwright against Francisco Liriano as arguably the most hotly contested division in baseball gets a jumpstart on what could be another six-month staredown between St. Louis, Pittsburgh and the trendy Chicago Cubs.
''I do think it's tangible evidence we've gotten better,'' Hurdle said. ''We got to play five Sunday night games last year. There's a whole different set of challenges in those we found out as we get into the season and we start playing good baseball and people take notice and they want to put you on TV because they like your team and they like your players.''
And they taut, high-level play that tends to follow the Pirates face the Cardinals.
St. Louis is the only team with a better record over the last three years than Pittsburgh, the main reason the Pirates have been relegated to the wild card during the franchise's sprint back to respectability. Pittsburgh is well aware a better start would go a long way toward claiming its first division crown in 24 years. The Pirates are just 58-65 in April during Hurdle's highly successful tenure, typically waiting to heat up in lockstep with the weather at PNC Park.
''We dug some holes in the past coming out of spring training,'' Hurdle said. ''We structured our spring training a little differently this year to hopefully generate a more consistent offense from opening day to the end of the season.''
Pittsburgh got hot last spring just in time to hold off the rapidly maturing Cubs in the regular season, though the Pirates mustered little in a 4-0 loss to Chicago ace Jake Arrieta during the one-game elimination. Despite the departure of longtime fixtures Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez over the winter, Pittsburgh remains bullish on the possibilities 2016 provides.
''It's not so much optimism it's more just a belief that we know what we can do with what we have,'' second baseman Josh Harrison said. ''If that's taken as optimism that's fine but this isn't a front from anybody in this locker room. We know we're good. We don't care about what people say and what's been done. All that matters is what happens between those white lines and that's what makes it so good.''
It's a feeling that's equally as pervasive in St. Louis. The last time the Cardinals visited PNC Park, they soaked the carpet in the visitor's clubhouse after claiming their ninth NL Central crown since the start of the millennium.
''I am very, very excited about this team,'' said Wainwright, who will start his fifth opening day for St. Louis.
And the rest of baseball is excited for a season filled with high expectations in three cities taking different tacks in hopes of reaching the same destination.
''No one wants to talk about a team that has won nearly 300 games in three years and no one wants to give us any credit because those other teams might look a little bit better on paper but games aren't played on paper and if we didn't have to play them we'd all have the year off I guess,'' Locke said. ''We'll see what happens. I know it's going to be a tight race. Other teams have good pitching and good offense but it's nothing that we don't have.''
AP freelance writer Terry Hutchens in Indianapolis contributed to this report.