Confidence helping Bucs overcome years of losing

PITTSBURGH – There are plenty of reasons why the Pittsburgh Pirates enter today as the first-place team in the National League’s Central Division, with Major League Baseball’s best record.

Pitching determines success in baseball, and a talented starting pitching staff that features a splendid mix of seasoned veterans and up-and-coming youngsters has to rank near the top of the list, as does a deep, stingy bullpen that has all but shut down opposing teams from the seventh inning on this season.

Together, they’ve put the Pirates atop the National League leader board in the all-important earned runs average-against category.

The leadership and field presence of catcher Russell Martin – acquired by the Pirates as a free agent from the New York Yankees last winter – has been another big factor.

Last season, opponents ran at will against Pirate catchers as the team wilted for the second straight year in August and September. This season, Martin has thrown out half the runners who have attempted to steal against him, and given plenty of others reason to think twice before taking off.

Third baseman Pedro Alvarez is among the league leaders in both home runs and RBIs, second-year standout left fielder Starling Marte has injected a spark at the top of the batting order, and center fielder Andrew McCutchen has become a three-time National League All-Star.

The Pirates have received key contributions from just about every player on their roster in a magical year that almost assuredly will exorcise the demons the team has fought for its past 20 consecutive losing seasons.

For the past two decades, sports fans in western Pennsylvania have spent this time of year talking up the Steelers. Now, from Blair County to Johnstown to Oakland and downtown Pittsburgh, the Pirates have become the focus, and World Series talk is in the air.

“It’s exciting,” first baseman-outfielder Garrett Jones said while sitting at his locker before a recent Pirates doubleheader with the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park. “The stands are filling up for Monday games, Tuesday games. It just makes baseball that much more fun when you’re playing for something and the city is behind you.”

After the American sports record 20 consecutive losing seasons and two straight late-summer collapses the past two seasons, there’s reason to believe that this Pirates team is cut from a very different mold.

Despite averaging well less than four runs per game scored and being in the bottom quadrant of the National League in team batting average, the Pirates have found different ways to win. That isn’t particularly difficult to do with a pitching staff that has produced a National League-leading 14 shutouts, but there is a certain resourcefulness, a certain chemistry, a certain camaraderie surrounding this team that cannot be overlooked.

“We just have confidence in what we can do as a team,” Jones said. “We have confidence in what we can do on the field. We know that we can compete with any team, and that if we play good baseball, we’re going to win a lot more than we’re going to lose.”

Experience has also been an important factor. Players like second baseman Neil Walker, who went through the growing pains of the past two seasons, have developed into seasoned veterans now.

“I think there’s just a mindset,” Walker, a Pittsburgh area native, said. “There are no longer a bunch of rookies on this team flipping a coin and hoping that things will work out. Two years ago, or three years ago, when we would get down in a game, it was tough for us to come back. Now, when the team gets down, guys aren’t hitting the panic button.”

Instead, they’re playing within themselves.

“Now, collectively, each of us know that if they don’t get it done, or can’t get it done, we’re going to trust the next guy in line,” Walker said. “I’m not going to try to do more than I’m capable of, and try to hit a home run in certain situations where I can take a walk to help the team, and trust the next guy behind me.”

That “next man up” philosophy has served the Pirates particularly well this season, when facing the inevitable injuries and adversity that every club must stare down during the long course of a spring, summer and fall.

When starting pitchers A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriquez – who is still on the disabled list with forearm tightness – were forced to sit out with injuries in early June, the Pirates could count on young, outstanding arms like Jeff Locke, a lefty who has become a staff ace, as well as highly-touted phenom Gerrit Cole, veteran Jeanmar Gomez and promising young right-hander Brandon Cumpton, to avoid missing a beat.

The same thing has happened in the bullpen, where former eighth-inning specialist Mark Melancon has filled the closer’s role that formerly had been held so capably by 36-year-old veteran Jason Grilli, who had posted a league-leading 30 saves before going on the DL with a pitching-arm flexor problem that will sideline him for more than one month.

Relievers like Tony Watson and fireballing Justin Wilson, both left-handed middle innings-eaters, are prepared to have their roles expand.

“It goes for me, and it goes for everybody else – you just have to be ready when the [bullpen] phone rings,” Wilson said.

Watson agreed, saying that losing Grilli – one of five Pirates named to the All-Star team this season – was “obviously a blow, but as Clint always says, ‘it’s all about being the next man up.”’

“Clint” is Clint Hurdle, the 56-year-old indomitable optimist who is steering this fabulous Pirates ship in his third season as the team’s manager.

“We’ve had some challenges, but this group has responded well, and from that aspect, this season has been special,” Hurdle said. “I also love that they play the game hard, they play the game with passion, they enjoy each other’s company, and they have fun.”

That camaraderie and teamwork have been perhaps best exemplified by veteran Clint Barmes, who was subplanted as the team’s starting shortstop by up-and-coming youngster Jordy Mercer, but has still taken time to help Mercer become more adept and comfortable at the position.

“We have a great group of guys with a lot of talent,” said Barmes, a second-year Pirate. “The chemistry in the clubhouse has been good since I’ve been here. I think it’s safe to say that where we are at this point of this season is a lot better than where we were at this point last season.”

Until the Pirates can successfully negotiate a full six-month season, the ghosts of years past will loom. But the influence of those ghosts is felt less and less keenly with each notch the Bucs put in their win column.

“There are always going to be doubters and second-guessers,” Jones said. “But you have to prove them wrong on the field, and the way you prove them wrong is by winning. That’s what we’ve set out to do, and that’s what we’re confident about doing.”