Buccos hope to finish strong

It has been two full decades since the Pittsburgh Pirates have finished a season with a winning record.

The 2013 version of the Buccos appear not only to be a cinch to snap that record but have all of the sudden blossomed into contenders to win it all as they held the best record in all of baseball heading into Tuesday night’s action with a 51-30 record.

The Pirates started off slow this season as they dropped five of their first six games but have won 50 games and lost only 25 since.

That equates to a .667 winning percentage over their last 75 games which projected over a full season would add up to 108 wins.

Despite the red hot start, Pirate fans have been somewhat sluggish to rally around their beloved Bucco’s as they ranked just 22nd out of 30 major league teams in home attendance, averaging a little over 24,000 fans per game in the beautiful PNC Park.

Perhaps Pirates fans are fearful of a monumental collapse such as the one they experienced last year when the gold and black held a 63-47 record on the eighth of August only to go 16-36 the rest of the way to finish the season at 79-83.

It would be hard to imagine a similar collapse this season as the Pirates appear to be a much more well rounded ball club from top to bottom than they were a season ago.

Despite starting pitchers A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriquez spending a sizable amount of the first half on the disabled list, the Buc’s have gotten outstanding contributions from a pair of lefties in veteran Fransisco Liriano and young Jeff Locke.

Liriano, who signed with the Pirates as a free agent in the off season after posting a 19-27 record over the past three years with an earned run average of over 5.00, owns a 7-3 record and a 2.23 ERA through the first half.

Locke, who was acquired by the Pirates back in 2009 along with fellow starting pitcher Charlie Morton from the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Nate McClouth, has gone 13 straight starts without allowing more than three runs in a start and owns a 7-1 mark with a 2.06 ERA.

As good as the Pittsburgh starting pitching has been, the bullpen has been even better led by the combination of southpaw Justin Wilson (5-1, 2.18) and right hander Mark Melancon (2-1, 0.89) in the seventh and eighth innings.

The Pirates elected to trade last year’s all-star closer Joel Hanrahan to Boston in the off season and hand the ninth inning duties to Jason Grilli and that move by general manager Neil Huntington has proved genius as Grilli has saved 27 of 28 games on the season.

Huntington also went out and signed veteran catcher Russell Martin as a free agent despite his .211 batting average in 2012 and many credit Martin along with Pirate pitching coach Ray Searage with helping the staff achieve an impressive 3.11 team ERA after 81 games.

Pirate pitcher’s have not been afraid to pitch inside as they lead all of baseball by plunking 41 hitters.

While Grilli is a definite to be on the National League all-star team and Locke, Liriano, and Melancon all seem deserving of a spot in New York as well, the Pirates offense has been less spectacular but have still manged to get the job done.

Center fielder Andrew McCutchen is hitting .292 with nine home runs and 42 runs batted in to go along with 16 steals while playing gold glove defense, while left fielder Starling Marte (.288, 8HR, 26RBI, 22SB) is developing into an outstanding lead off hitter. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez could make the all-star team as well with 20 homers and 53 RBI’s in the first half.Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle would have to be front runners for executive and manager of the year awards respectively if the Pirates can continue their torrid pace. What makes the Pirates run even more impressive is the fact that they are doing it in a division that also includes the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds, two teams that would qualify for the playoffs as wild cards if the season ended today.

The Pirates and the rest of the National League Central lost the Houston Astros to the American League in 2013 meaning some 19 games they won’t get to play against a team that won just 57 times last year.

The Pirates still have 14 games left to play against the second place Cardinals and nine more against Cincinnati before the season comes to a close.It will be interesting to see if Huntington will be busy at the trade deadline as he has been the past two seasons or if he will be content to stay put.

The Buccos will only need to raise the “Jolly Roger” 31 more times in the second half to end one of baseball’s most frustrating streaks and with the young talent they have assembled, don’t be surprised if it is many years before they are below the .500 mark again.

Mike Morrison covers sports for The Marietta Times. He can be reached at 376-5441.