Solid pitching helping make Pirates contenders -- yes, really

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I have this crazy idea, an idea as crazy as believing in Charlie Brown, a balanced budget, the Cleveland Browns and pro soccer in America. I am starting to believe the Pittsburgh Pirates are an honest to goodness contender.

That's right: the Pirates. The team that hasn't had a winning season in Bryce Harper's lifetime, or since Bush the elder was president, Nolan Ryan was pitching and Barry Bonds was skinny. The team that in recent years passed up Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Jered Weaver, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Matt Wieters, Madison Bumgarner, Eric Hosmer and Buster Posey to take Bryan Bullington, Neil Walker, Brad Lincoln, Daniel Moskos and Pedro Alvarez with top-11 picks in the draft. The team that last year was in first place as late as July 25 and wound up with 90 losses. The team that has scored the fewest runs in baseball this year. The team that is the worst hitting team in franchise history (.224) except for the outfit that finished in 11th place in the American Association 128 years ago!

Today those Pirates are tied for first place with Cincinnati in the NL Central with more wins than any of the four 2011 NL playoff teams and the best record in baseball over the past two weeks (12-3). The Pirates are 30-21 since beginning the year 2-6.

It would be easy to dismiss the Pirates as a pretender waiting for the fall -- a reprise of their 2011 season. But Pittsburgh was doomed to fail last year because its pitching staff was a collection of soft-tossing pitchers whose low strikeout rate and high WHIP portended the collapse. This year looks very different. The Pirates are striking out 7.41 batters per nine innings, the highest rate in franchise history by a wide margin (7.00 from 1969). Their WHIP has improved from 15th in the league to fourth. In short, the Pirates now have pitchers with stuff.

A.J. Burnett has found refuge from the AL East with the JV lineups of the NL. Erik Bedard, another veteran happily sprung from the AL, has remained healthy. And James McDonald, courtesy of a wipeout slider discovered at the urging of catcher Rod Barajas in a morning spring training game, is a different pitcher. He just might become the greatest righthanded strikeout pitcher in Pirates history.

"At 10 am one morning in Clearwater he was trying out a pitch," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, "and by 4 pm he knew he had a new weapon."

McDonald has struck out 73 batters in 75 1/3 innings. Kris Benson holds the record for strikeouts by a Pirates righthander with 184 in 2000 -- unless you want to go back to 1891, when the mound was 50 feet from home plate, and Mark "Fido" Baldwin whiffed 197 batters in 51 starts.

(Truth be told, the Pirates have a strangely poor record when it comes to strikeout pitchers. Bob Veale and Oliver Perez are their top strikeout pitchers of the modern era. Since 2005, they have finished 14, 10, 13, 15, 15, 16 and 16 in the 16-team National League in strikeouts.)

Still not convinced this is a different Pirates team from last year? Here are more reasons why Pittsburgh is not collapsing this time:

• The offense isn't as bad as the numbers suggest. The Pirates were historically awful in April and May, but have hit a respectable .257 in June. Neil Walker, Garrett Jones, Alex Presley and Clint Barmes all have awakened to give Andrew McCutchen some help. This is still a below-average offense, but Pittsburgh doesn't need as much firepower as most teams because . . .

• The Pirates have a strong homefield advantage. Runs are harder to come by in PNC Park than in any other major league park this season, with teams combining for slightly more than five runs per game. The park plays big in leftfield and left-centerfield, and Hurdle chuckles as opposing hitters try to jack balls over the rightfield wall, which is not as easy a task as it appears. The Pirates have played 18 games at home without hitting a home run, and are 9-9 in those games. They are 19-6 in home games decided by one or two runs.

"What we wanted to do was establish this place as a homefield advantage," Hurdle said, "and I can see that taking place."

Meanwhile, Pirates' attendance through 30 home dates is up 15 percent.

• Pittsburgh's bullpen is ridiculously good, sporting the lowest ERA in baseball (2.44). GM Neil Huntington, as if borrowing from the Tampa Bay model, built his 'pen on the cheap. Juan Cruz, 33, Jason Grilli, 35, Doug Slaten, 32, Chris Resop, 29, and closer Joel Hanrahan, 30, all bounced around with other teams before finding a home in Pittsburgh. Tony Watson, 27, Jared Hughes, 26, and Brad Lincoln, 27, are Pittsburgh draft choices who didn't quite cut it as starters but who have found success in the bullpen. (Lincoln will start Tuesday night in Baltimore in place of the injured Jeff Karstens.)

Grilli somehow is throwing the ball harder (94-96 mph) and striking batters out more frequently (14.6 per nine innings) than ever before in his well-traveled career. Grilli credited a vigorous offseason training routine under a personal trainer, a routine that included running in sand, steady work with a jump rope he called his "Rocky Balboa" rope, and the willpower to come back from a severe knee injury in 2010 when a loosened bone chip ripped open his quad muscle. "Dr. [Richard] Steadman told me it was the worst knee he saw," Grilli said. "He sees knees all the time I asked him if I would be able to pitch again, and he said, 'Possible, but not likely.' That was all I needed to hear. You tell me I can't do something, and I'm going to do it."

• Hurdle is proving my theory that many managers are better in their second job (i.e., Terry Francona, Charlie Manuel, Bruce Bochy, Joe Girardi, etc.). Hurdle has been masterful as this team makes the most out of having scored the fewest runs in the majors. His bullpen usage has been so sharp he has used pitchers three consecutive days only twice. He twice pulled McDonald from games for a pinch-hitter after just four innings -- and won both games. He has given Barmes and Alvarez three straight days out of the lineup as a "mental break" to snap a slump; each one came back swinging a hot bat.

The manager also has encouraged his players to run the bases aggressively. The Pirates are among the four best teams in the league at taking the extra base.

"I was there in Texas with Ron [Washington] when he stressed aggressive baserunning," said Hurdle, the former hitting coach. "Well, you have to live through that cutting-of-the-teeth period. Everybody now talks about how the Rangers run the bases, but back then we ran into a lot of outs, but that's part of changing the mindset. And we're in that cutting-the-teeth period now."

It's difficult to believe that any baseball team in this era could field a losing team 19 years in a row, especially when the Pirates picked no lower than fourth in six consecutive drafts (2006-11). Other than McCutchen, however, they don't have an impact player on the roster. In 2010 they gave a high school pitcher, second-round pick Stetson Allie, $2.25 million -- then after just 26 2/3 innings (with 37 walks) they gave up on him as a pitcher and converted him to third base. How do you give somebody $2.5 million to pitch and decide after 26 2/3 innings that he can't pitch?

With the eighth pick this year they were flabbergasted that Stanford pitcher Mark Appel was still on the board and, though they had no idea he would be sitting there, decided he was too good to pass up. They now are learning why teams passed on Appel: He's a difficult sign. The Pirates have a $6.6 million signing budget for their draft picks.

But the Pirates have the opportunity to start a new era of baseball in Pittsburgh -- just by giving Pittsburgh fans their first look at a pennant race in 20 years. The NL Central is an open door, what with the Astros and Cubs rebuilding and a major talent drain in the division due to the free agent departures of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, and significant injuries to Lance Berkman, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Ryan Madson, Scott Rolen, Alex Gonzalez and Jonathan Lucroy. The division is so bad that the Pirates, Reds, Cardinals, Brewers, Astros and Cubs are 87-108 when they have to play outside it.

The NL Central champion has won an average of 93 games in the 16 full seasons since realignment, but this is starting to look like one of the five times when only 83-88 wins was enough to take the division. Pittsburgh may not be a playoff team just yet, but can the Pirates win 83 games -- a total that would have them playing meaningful games in September for the first time in a generation? Yes, they can.

The Pirates' front office crunched some numbers before the season began and calculated that the expanded postseason format this year (with the second wild card added to each league) improved their playoff chances by 13 percent. But it may be that the Pirates' best chance for hanging around a pennant race rests with all of their intradivisional games. Starting July 2, the Pirates will have 84 games remaining, or just slightly more than half their schedule. They will play about one-third of the second half of their schedule against two teams playing combined .383 baseball: the Astros and Cubs (27 of 84).

Pittsburgh does have a style that allows little room for error. The Pirates' offense is so bad that they must play close, low-scoring games consistently, a style that puts tremendous pressure on their bullpen. But in this run-depressed era of baseball -- especially in a pitcher's ballpark -- they have a fighting chance as long as their arms stay healthy. Maybe October in Pittsburgh still belongs to the Steelers alone, the way it has been for 19 years. But can baseball matter again in September in Pittsburgh? It actually seems possible this year.