Pirates hope fast start leads to strong finish

Pirates hope fast start leads to strong finish

Pirates hope fast start leads to strong finish
The first half of the Pirates' season may not defy belief. In baseball, teams are always turning over new leaves with every turn of the calendar. It does, however, defy reason.

How does a club defined by offensive impotence for two months lead the Major Leagues in scoring and the National League in home runs in the third? How can a team spend the season's first 55 days in the familiar netherlands below .500 -- and spend the All-Star break atop the NL Central with a 48-37 record?

Club breakdowns
First-half highlights

It is the stuff Hollywood turns out, and indeed we have seen this on the silver screen. This is the remake, The Bad News Bucs, a collection of baseball greenhorns, scoundrels and retreads having the time of their lives by ganging up on expectations for the common good -- and for a city-full of soul brothers.

"All of us have chips on our shoulders," admitted James McDonald, the team's co-ace with A.J. Burnett. "Everyone looks at Pittsburgh as a team you can come in and beat. We're here to let guys know we're competitors, we're here to be good for a while."

They've been good already for a good while. But they have also been here before, a year ago entering the break in a similar contending position, in third place but only one game behind. Manager Clint Hurdle's year-long mantra -- "Finish ... put the 2011 experience to use." -- is about to be put to the grand test.

"A year ago, we experienced four months of good baseball, then two months of wipeout baseball," said Hurdle, referring to the fade to a 72-90 finish, the club's 19th straight under .500. "They walked away with a better comprehension of what you need to do, how mentally tough you have to be, to win your division."

In April and May, on a historically-poor pace, the Pirates batted .218, scored 147 runs and hit 38 home runs. In June, in half as many games, they scored 146 and clocked 39. This turnaround wasn't brought about by major changes to the roster; there weren't any until Drew Sutton's switch-hitting bat arrived in late June. The only change was to the mindset.

Given ample rope by a pitching staff that for a long time made the most of the least -- despite the offensive woes, the Bucs were never deeper in the hole than four games under .500 -- the batters eventually learned to not take yesterday's failure into the batter's box for today's at-bat.

First-half awards
MVP: Andrew McCutchen Leads the club in every imaginable offensive category.
Cy Young: James McDonald Consistent and domineering most of the time, untouchable some of the time.
Rookie: Jared Hughes His sneer and stuff have been critical bullpen components.
Top reliever: Joel Hanrahan Return of swing-and-miss slider has made him even tougher.
"We waited for a lot of guys to get clear between the ears," Hurdle said. "That was my main point of discussion. Everything underneath the (batting) helmets is what we needed to talk about."

All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen and second baseman Neil Walker were the only constants. Others, foremost Pedro Alvarez, eventually pulled abreast. Alvarez was batting .189 with 25 RBIs on June 15; on July 8, he rested a couple behind McCutchen's 18 homers and with 50 RBIs. Garrett Jones was only a few steps further behind, and by getting in his licks against southpaws convinced Hurdle to play both he and Casey McGehee, rather than platoon them, and the Bucs are 17-8 when both are in the lineup.

All are repaying the faith Hurdle continued to show in them -- even when it appeared to be misguided faith.

"You've got to believe in things other people don't believe in," said Hurdle, with a hint of the snugness to which he is certainly entitled. "Things you can't even see."

Players to watch in second half
Pedro Alvarez Has been streaky hot and cold; what'll become his predominant temperature?
Juan Cruz A key, but perhaps most brittle, cog in the end-game relief shuttle, between Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan.
Clint Barmes After a lot of early company, by midseason stands out as the lineup's only weak link; how long can the Bucs afford a .200-hitting shortstop?
The trend-setting pitching was easy to see, and early. The Pirates are 43-29 from April 21 when Burnett made a Pittsburgh debut delayed by his Spring Training run-in with an errant bunt off his own bat. He and his pupil, McDonald, are 19-5 combined, helping the team weather the long-term loss of 40 percent of the rotation (Jeff Karstens recently returned from 10 weeks on the DL with shoulder and hip flexor issues, and Charlie Morton is gone after Tommy John surgery) and the erratic pitching of Erik Bedard.

The bullpen -- or, rather, Hurdle's and pitching coach Ray Searage's efficient use of it -- has been a strength. Jason Grilli found his latter-day strikeout pitch, the Pirates found Juan Cruz, Joel Hanrahan, though less dominant, always finds a way to close the door.

"We've got a lot of games left," Jones said. "It's a long season still. But our confidence is high, and we want to keep that going, keep putting W's on the board."

Grilli is more succinct: "We're for real."

The Bucs look forward to retrieving Jose Tabata, the young veteran whose struggles provoked a return to the Minors. He is in Indianapolis, working on both his stroke and on his confidence.

In Pittsburgh, everyone is proud to carry a lunch pail. In the Pirates clubhouse, there is one lunch pail which everyone carries. It has worked so far. But as far as the ultimate goal, the ultimate dream, is concerned, it is still a work in progress.

"A group of men committed to one goal, [when] nobody cares who gets the credit, can do some pretty exciting things," Hurdle said. "So far, three-and-a-half months into the season, that's kind of the direction we're headed right now. But we know how hard it is."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.