Tired of Major League Baseball’s ongoing and somewhat exhausting investigation of the use of PED’s in the sport? Tired of players like Alex Rodriguez acting arrogantly to the charges and his subsequent appeal to his “suspension”? Tired of the same teams dominating the headlines year after year? (I’m talking to you Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.) Tired of teams who spend far too much, only to tank on the field and look like a complete joke? (I’m talking to you Toronto Blue Jays.) Well here’s a team and a story that all sports fans can feel good about.
The Pittsburgh Pirates can save baseball from itself. Trust me, you wouldn’t have uttered those words 5 years ago. But the Pirates are the feel-good story of the 2013 Major League Baseball season.
Since 1992, the Pirates have mastered the art of futility. Granted, they deserved some sort of punishment for employing Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, two of the most reprehensible people to ever suit up in Major League Baseball. The Pirates lost a heartbreaking National League Championship series to the Atlanta Braves in seven games. Bonds and Bonilla were free agents at the end of the season and both decided to leave Pittsburgh for greener pastures. Bonds went to San Francisco while Bonilla joined the New York Mets. The Pirates sank in the standings and wallowed in misery for the next two decades.
With teams like the Yankees and Red Sox spending money like Donald Trump on a firing binge, the small-market Pirates couldn’t compete with the big boys of baseball. It also didn’t help that the 1994 strike which cost Major League Baseball the World Series, couldn’t get a salary cap in place that would have controlled spending amongst its members. Even a move from dumpy Three Rivers Stadium, to the sparkling new PNC Park couldn’t get the Pirates out of the basement.
That isn’t to say the Pirates had no players in the last 20 years. Brian Giles put up some excellent offensive numbers from 1999 to 2003. Kevin Young provided speed and power, while wearing a Bucs uniform for 10 seasons. Mike Williams was a solid closer, saving 46 games for Pittsburgh in 2002. But the wins were few and far between for the moribund franchise.
Until this season. The Pirates have the best record in Major League Baseball, with a 70-44 record, sitting 3.5 games ahead of St. Louis in the National League Central. What’s great about the Pirates is that they are a complete team.
Centre fielder Andrew McCutchen is a five-tool stud who excels defensively, while contributing with the bat. Currently McCutchen has a .312 batting average with 16 home runs and 65 RBIs. The 26-year-old who has been with the Pirates since 2009, also possesses strong speed, stealing 24 bases. To top that McCutchen is a gold glove candidate in the outfield, making spectacular catches as well as recording 9 outfield assists, thanks to a cannon of a throwing arm.
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez leads the team with 27 home runs and 73 RBIs, and is the big bat that every team needs to put the threat of the big fly in the lineup. Alvarez hit a career high 30 home runs last season, and should easily surpass that mark this season.
Left fielder Starling Marte provides the speed at the top of the lineup. His 32 stolen bases leads the club, and he can provide instant offense from the leadoff spot.
Catcher Russell Martin has found new life in Pittsburgh after coming over from the New York Yankees via free agency. While his numbers aren’t the greatest, (.248 average, 10 home runs, 41 RBIs) Martin has come up with 4 walk-off hits for Pittsburgh this season. His leadership has also been noted to aid a young pitching staff during difficult stretches.
Speaking of the pitching staff, the Pirates 3.08 ERA is the best in all of baseball, as the Bucs pitching has been outstanding in 2013.
A.J. Burnett leads the Pirates with 141 strikeouts, yet despite the Pirates success, he’s the only starting pitcher with a losing record, going 5-7 with a 2.73 ERA. For some strange reason, Burnett hasn’t received the run support that the other members of the staff have enjoyed. Nevertheless, Burnett is having a quality season, and has seen his career rejuvenated in Pittsburgh.
Jeff Locke is having a splendid season. The 25-year-old left-hander is establishing himself as the future ace of the staff, going 9-3 with a 2.47 ERA. Locke has a bright future ahead of him, if his arm can withstand the rigours of a full season.
Francisco Liriano leads the Bucs with 12 wins and a sparkling 2.02 ERA. The 29-year-old left-hander is enjoying a renaissance with the Pirates, after splitting time with Minnesota and the Chicago White Sox last season, where he posted a mediocre 6-12 mark with a 5.34 ERA.
The bullpen has been superb as well. Closer Jason Grilli is tied for second in the National League with 30 saves and only 1 blown save all season. However, there is concern as Grilli was put on the 15 day disabled list, with a strained forearm. The Pirates will need a healthy Grilli, to close out tight games down the stretch and into the postseason.
The Pirates have also received valuable contributions from Justin Wilson and Mark Melancon from the bullpen, which eases the pressure from the starters, knowing that the relievers can get the job done.
Pulling all the right strings is manager Clint Hurdle. The former Colorado skipper, who guided the Rockies to a World Series appearance in 2007, has been masterful at putting things in perspective, while seeing his young team enjoy success. Hurdle can be fiery at times, as his 4 ejections will tell you, but his players love playing for him and it shows. Hurdle is the clear front-runner for NL Manager of the Year, and his experience with the managerial role is crucial for Pittsburgh. Hurdle is also a recovering alcoholic, which makes this story even better. His recovery to go with the Pirates sudden resurgence as all the makings of a Hollywood script for the ages.
It has been since 1979 when the likes of Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Kent Tekulve, Omar Moreno and John Candelaria were donning the yellow and black, that the Pirates have won the World Series. While the playoffs are still over six weeks away, and many things can happen between now and October, the Pirates are the best story in baseball. I’m hopping on the bandwagon as the Jolly Roger is flying high with pride again. The Pirates are the team that can save baseball.
You can follow me on Twitter @jstar1973