Pirates suddenly relevant in NL Central

Joel Hanrahan was 12 years old in the summer of 1993 and laying waste to his Iowa Little League when the Pittsburgh Pirates began their dispiriting run of 18 straight sub.-500 seasons. The last time Pittsburgh fielded a winning team, Cal Ripken Jr. was in dogged pursuit of Lou Gehrig, the "tainted supplement" excuse had yet to be invented and Pirates outfielder Al Martin's media guide biography described him as a monogamous guy with a USC football pedigree.

As Boston's 2004 Idiots can attest, a lack of personal culpability doesn't grant players a reprieve from emotional baggage. Johnny Damon and Curt Schilling had nothing to do with Mike Torrez's gopher-itis or Bill Buckner's grounder-fielding acumen, but they still had to come to the park each day and answer questions about the "Curse of the Bambino." Like a high cholesterol rate or male pattern baldness, organizational futility is passed along from one generation to the next.

Through the years, Jason Kendall, Brian Giles, Jason Bay and numerous others have arrived in Pittsburgh with boundless optimism only to fall victim to what Jason Schmidt termed the dreaded "Bucco malaise." And now the burden has been passed along to Andrew McCutchen and the other members of this year's squad.

At the All-Star Game in Phoenix last week, Hanrahan, Pittsburgh's closer, was asked whether references to the number "18" have grown tiresome. He responded with a playfully quizzical look.

"Our second baseman, Neil Walker, wears 18," Hanrahan said. "He's a heck of a player. Is that what you're talking about?"

It's often said that closers need short memories. In Pittsburgh's case, it's a teamwide recipe for salvation.

You've no doubt heard this by now, but the Pirates have joined the Cleveland Indians, Ryan Vogelsong, and Robinson Cano and his batting-practice-pitching dad as one of the feel-good stories of the year. With 50 victories, they are first in the National League Central and seven wins short of their total for the entire 2010 season. And with each late-inning comeback or new display of feistiness, they're giving Pittsburgh fans more reason to believe.

Attendance at PNC Park is up about 3,600 per game, and Pirates die-hards have poked their heads out of the ground, Punxsutawney Phil-like, in anticipation of six more weeks of winning baseball. Or nine.

"I think the real baseball fans have been sitting at home cussing out their TVs and cussing out the Pirates," Hanrahan said. "Now they don't feel embarrassed anymore. Before, they'd come to the games and they'd be rocking Steelers shirts and Penguins hats. Now you come to the games and it's all Pirates stuff. They've got McCutchen shirts and Neil Walker jerseys everywhere. They're buying into it, and they're really energizing us, as well. It's a lot more fun playing in front of 35,000 people than 15,000."

The road is about to get more difficult for the Pirates because the big-boy portion of the schedule is about to commence. After taking two of three games from Houston this weekend, the Pirates returned home Monday to begin a run of 12 straight games against the Reds, Cardinals, Phillies and Braves -- teams with a combined .558 winning percentage.

A lot of people think the Pirates are a mirage, but they've been a resilient bunch to this point. They're hanging around in the NL Central race despite an offense that ranks near the bottom of the league in almost every major category. Catchers Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit, who account for about a quarter of Pittsburgh's $45 million payroll, have fewer than 200 at-bats combined because of injuries. Amid the roster flux, the Pirates have given infielder Brandon Wood and catcher Michael McKenry an opportunity to revive their careers and have gotten some mileage from Alex Presley, Chase D'Arnaud and Josh Harrison off the farm.

The Pirates are your basic "pitching, defense and timely hitting" production. They rank 10th in the majors in Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency listings -- up from 30th last year -- and they've been more sure-handed after committing an MLB-high 127 errors in 2010. The improved glovework is vital given that Pittsburgh's staff ranks 29th in the majors in strikeouts, and the starters are a bunch of pitch-to-contact guys.

While the fans feed off the players' enthusiasm, the players keep feeding off first-year manager Clint Hurdle, whose booming voice and inspirational sayings have set a perpetually upbeat tone in the clubhouse. Hurdle is a marked departure from predecessor John Russell, who was so unassuming and serene that he made former A's manager Bob Geren look like "Charisma Bob."

"He keeps us positive, and he's the same person every single day regardless of how he feels," McCutchen said. "It's hard to be upbeat and encouraging to someone else even when you might feel discouraged, but that's what he's done for us."

The Pittsburgh staff also has responded wonderfully to new pitching coach Ray Searage and his nurturing approach. Starters Paul Maholm, Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton, James McDonald and Jeff Karstens make about $12 million combined, and they rank fifth in the NL in ERA at 3.58. Karstens was downright Mark Buehrle-like with an 83-pitch complete game against Houston this weekend.
So what's the second-half forecast for baseball in Pittsburgh? The questions below could help determine the answer:

• Reinforcements, anyone?

General manager Neal Huntington has made it clear he's open to dealing at the trade deadline, but any moves must be assessed in a long-term context. He's not going to do something just to pacify the masses, nor will he undermine the game plan for a short-term fix.

"In theory, adding to this club is a no-brainer, but the practical application is a little more challenging because of the big picture," Huntington said. "We don't want to mortgage the future to make a desperate run in 2011. We have to be smart and make logical, rational decisions. That's boring, and fans don't like that, and I understand that. But for us to be successful, we have to remove as much emotion from the process as we can."

Realistically, the in-house options might make more sense than anything Huntington can add on the trade market. The Pirates have checked out Hunter Pence, Ryan Ludwick, Josh Willingham, Conor Jackson and the other available bats. But in the end, they might just stick with what they have. Steve Pearce hit three homers in his first 18 at-bats with Triple-A Indianapolis in his return from a calf strain, and Doumit is about to begin a rehab assignment from an ankle injury. As an added bonus, Matt Diaz is hitting .308 since the start of June.

• Can the pitching hold up?

Pittsburgh's five starters all have a chance to surpass their 2010 workloads, but that's not a huge concern given that Maholm, Morton, Correia, McDonald and Karstens are all in the 26-30 age bracket. Ross Ohlendorf is working his way back from a shoulder injury, and if the Pirates need a short-term innings fix, they can always call up 2006 first-round pick Brad Lincoln, who has an 85-16 strikeout-walk ratio in Indianapolis, or Brian Burres. Unless Huntington has a secret plan to acquire Ubaldo Jimenez or James Shields, his internal options are as good as the back-end starters on the trade market.

The Pittsburgh bullpen would get a shot in the arm -- figuratively speaking -- from a return by 2010 All-Star Evan Meek. Like Ohlendorf, he's rehabbing from a shoulder injury, and those are always difficult to assess.

• Help for Cutch

McCutchen is a rising star at age 24, and now the Pirates need their other young hitters to keep developing. Jose Tabata widened his swing earlier this season in an effort to hit more home runs -- and developed some holes as a result. Then he pulled a quad muscle just as his bat was coming around. Walker has contributed some huge clutch hits, and he is starting to regain the mindset he showed in his rookie year, when he made every at-bat a grind.

The wild card in the equation is Pedro Alvarez, whose professional education is continuing in the International League. He just needs time and patience before he's ready to help carry the hopes of a city.

Huntington, who has taken his share of abuse in four years on the job, knows how Terry Ryan, Dan O'Dowd and some other general managers felt as they endured several losing seasons while waiting for their long-term plans to take root.

"I've said this from the get-go: We wish we could have snapped our fingers and gone from inheriting one of worst major league teams with one of the worst farm systems in baseball to becoming one of the best teams with the best farm systems," Huntington said. "But wishes and hopes don't turn organizations around. In reality, it takes five to seven years to get an organization on the right track."

A .500 season would do wonders for the morale in Pittsburgh, but Huntington, Hurdle and the players don't have the luxury of dwelling on that symbolic milestone. They can't afford to emulate the 2003 Kansas City Royals, who went 83-79 under manager Tony Pena, then backslid to afterthought status.

"We don't want to take one shot and fail, then have to circle the wagons and regroup and take another shot in five or 10 years," Huntington said. "I have a ton of respect for the fan who just wants us to win 82 games and break the streak. If we can check off that box, great. But our goal is a consistent, championship-caliber major league team and organization. Winning 82 games may be an end result of that. But it's not our goal."

If the 2011 season has done anything, it has awakened the Pirates to the possibilities. They have a beautiful ballpark, fannies in the seats, pitching prospects Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie in the pipeline, and a plan that appears to be coming to fruition.

"There was always a what-if at the ballpark," McCutchen said. "Every time we stepped out there, we would think, 'How crazy would it be here if this or that happened?' We always believed it could happen, and now we've come too far for it to stay the same."

After 18 fallow seasons, change is in the air in Pittsburgh. The Pirates, believe it or not, are relevant again. It was almost worth the wait.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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