These Pirates might actually be for real

As sports fans, most of us are usually simultaneously hopeful and cynical when it comes to our teams. We think every first-round pick or highly rated prospect will become a star, that this will be the season, that a two-week hot streak means more than just a two-week hot streak. At the same, we panic over every blown save and every three-game losing streak.

Pittsburgh Pirates fans know this feeling all too well. They know especially all too well that the team hasn't finished over .500 since 1992. There are Pirates fans in college who have never seen their team play a significant game in September. But the Pirates have toyed with their emotions the past two seasons. In 2011, they were 53-47 on July 25 and leading a weak National League Central; by the end of August they were 18.5 games out of first place. In 2012, they went 34-19 in June and July, were tied for first as late as July 18 and were just 2½ games out of first on Aug. 9; by the end of the month they were 10 games out and then went 7-21 in September.

But the 2013 Pirates … I think this might be a different club, a better club. On Thursday, I watched them beat the Detroit Tigers 1-0 in 11 innings. Here's the thing: Once the game got to the relief pitchers, I expected the Pirates to win. These are the games they're winning this season with that lockdown bullpen that has been so brilliant. On this night, the pen allowed just two hits in 5⅔ innings and Neil Walker, the walk-off hero Tuesday, started the winning rally with a leadoff single. The Pirates are 34-20, jumped past the Reds into second place in the NL Central and have won the second-most games in the majors.

I was on Pittsburgh radio on Wednesday, and host David Todd asked about the outsider's perspective on the Pirates. The two main reasons this club is better, I suggested, is that teams can ride a dominant bullpen a long way; in this day, with relievers pitching a third of every game, a decent rotation plus a great pen can equal a very good pitching staff. Here, a quick stat on why to believe in this staff more than the 2011 and 2012 versions:

2011 first-half totals: 47-43, 3.44 ERA, 16th in NL in strikeouts

2012 first-half totals: 48-37, 3.47 ERA, 14th in NL in strikeouts

2013 through May 30: 34-20, 3.12 ERA, 2nd in NL in strikeouts

The first-half success of the Pirates' pitching in 2011 and 2012 were mirages, fueled by low batting averages on balls in play -- as indicated by their low strikeouts. When their luck turned, so did the results.

But look at 2013: This staff is striking batters out. Yes, some of that is fueled by the great bullpen, and, while there are concerns that it's been overworked -- setup man Mark Melancon (0.93 ERA) is on pace to appear in 87 games and closer Jason Grilli (1.06 ERA, 22 for 22 in saves) in 83 -- Todd pointed out that relievers have been very efficient. Grilli, for example, has faced more than four batters in just three of his appearances and thrown 20-plus pitches just four times. Melancon has allowed just 21 hits and two walks in his 29 innings and is averaging 13.4 pitches per outing.

So far, manager Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage have down a masterful job handling the staff. On Thursday, they pulled starter Jeff Locke at the right moment -- two runners on in the sixth, one out, Locke at 96 pitches. With the bottom of the Detroit lineup up, it would have been easy to try to get a couple more outs from Locke. But they brought in righty Vin Mazzaro to face Matt Tuiasosopo, a right-handed platoon hitter, knowing it was probably too early for Tigers manager Jim Leyland to go to his bench (especially in an NL park). Mazzaro worked out of that jam and then escaped a first-and-third, one-out situation in the seventh by getting Andy Dirks to pop out and Miguel Cabrera to ground out.

Yes, Melancon and Grilli will probably blow a lead at some point, but it's the rotation that is much improved. A.J. Burnett has pitched like a legit No. 1, Wandy Rodriguez has walked nine batters in 10 starts and Francisco Liriano has looked very good in his four starts. The keys have been Locke and Jeanmar Gomez, who are succeeding despite low strikeout rates. Thursday's game was my first extended look at Locke, and he impressed. He throws his fastball a lot -- about 66 percent of the time -- but he keeps it down in the zone and gets good late movement on it. It might not be a strikeout pitch, but when he commands it, it's an effective pitch. He mixes in a curveball and changeup to right-handers that he pounds low and away. If he keeps doing that, he can keep winning games.

Are the Pirates for real? Sure, I'd like to see some offense, especially if we expect a little regression from the staff. They're certainly in a tough division, and they have 30 games remaining against the Cardinals and Reds. But maybe it's fair to say the Cardinals and Reds have a lot of games left against the Pirates.

Are the Pirates for real? Let's sign off with some Twitter responses from Pirates fans.