Solid rotation and young hitters have fans raising eyebrows but also reserving judgement, writes Gregg Patton.
MLB: Pitching has led Pittsburgh Pirates into first place
Just past the halfway point of the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates have the best record in baseball.
Now there is a sentence to hearten underdog lovers everywhere.
The Pirates have not had a winning record since 1992. The 20-year drought is the worst ever among all franchises of the four major North American team sports. Not that this year's team pays any attention to the history of futility.
Their current spot atop the National League Central Division feels so natural that manager Clint Hurdle told reporters, after a loss that ended a nine-game winning streak last week: "There's no guarantee you're going to win every game when you're up here."
Up here, indeed.
Pittsburgh offered hints of success the last two seasons, twice carrying winning records through July. They even occupied first place for a while in July of 2011. But second-half collapses ended hopes, and spawned caution among fans twice burnt.
"I'm not falling for this one again," wrote Sean Gregory, a reporter for Time magazine and long-time Pirates fan. "I'll save any excitement for September."
Still, this team appears better equipped to sustain a play-off run, even if it does not hold off the formidable St Louis Cardinals or Cincinnati Reds for the division title.
Pittsburgh's earned run average of 3.16 leads the majors. That is partially a product of the Pirates pitcher-friendly home, PNC Park. But they have the fourth best ERA away from home, as well.
Their rotation is led by left-handers Jeff Locke (2.14 ERA) and Francisco Liriano (2.24), and right-hander AJ Burnett (3.14), and supported by a consistent bullpen.
First-time closer Jason Grilli was 28-for-29 in save opportunities. Set-up man Mark Melancon (0.87 ERA) was so good that Hurdle was touting him for the All-Star Game, a rarity for an eighth-inning guy.
The Pirates offence revolves around a core of young players. Centerfielder Andrew McCutchen (. 370 on base percentage, 45 runs batted in, 18 stolen bases), left-fielder Starling Marte (. 343 OBP, 25 steals, 56 runs) and third baseman Pedro Alavrez (21 home runs, 56 RBI) drive the attack and tempt their followers into believing.
Despite the recent late-summer disappointments, crowds at PNC are on pace to approach the franchise record 2.4 million people who came in 2001 to see a brand-new, downtown ballpark, one of the handsomest in MLB.
This time, they hope, it is to see a team worthy of its pre-1993 history, which includes five World Series championships and legends such as Honus Wagner and Roberto Clemente.
"There's something special going on here," Locke told Yahoo! Sports, citing a confident attitude that belies two frustrating decades. "There's nothing here these guys can't do."
Until August and September, we will reserve judgment.
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