Pirates Look to Keep Division-Leading Ship Afloat
To say that the past nineteen baseball seasons have been a disappointment for a city that boasts the sporting tradition that Pittsburgh does is about as much of an understatement as saying that Terry Bradshaw was just another quarterback or Mario Lemieux just a decent hockey player. The summer months in the Steel City have hummed to a familiar cadence over the past two decades; fans root for the Penguins as deep as they go in the Stanley Cup playoffs and then start counting the days until Steelers camp opens up. This year though the Pirates lead the NL Central by a game over Cincinnati at the All Star Break and have given fans reason to believe that the once-proud franchise’s run of futility will finally come to an end. If the Bucs continue their winning ways it’s not unthinkable that the only meaningful games in town this fall won’t be played across the street at Heinz Field, but also at PNC Park, which has proven to be the toughest place for opposing teams to win in the Majors thus far.
This year’s Pirates are making a name for themselves beyond just the confluence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers, owning the best record in baseball since May 12 at 34-19 and winning 11 of their last 13 series (1). All Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen ranks near the top of the NL in nearly every offensive category and starters James McDonald and A.J. Burnett have combined for 19 wins, leading a rotation that currently sits fifth in the majors in team ERA. Manager Clint Hurdle is taking a no-nonsense approach to effort, recently sending slumping outfielder Jose Tabata to Triple-A after continued lackadaisical play. Yes, these Pirates are giving Pittsburgh fans a real reason to buy in to the excitement.
Nowhere is Pirate fever more evident than at Friday home games when the ‘Free Shirt Friday’ promotional handouts inevitably end up swirling around in a Terrible Towel-like sea at PNC, where attendance is up over 116,000 from the first half of 2011 (2). It’s hard to blame the Pittsburgh faithful for going with what feels natural in a town that has captured two Lombardi Trophies and one Stanley Cup this decade, or for getting excited over the prospect of finally being back on the baseball map again.
While a second half schedule that has a combined winning percentage below .500 certainly won’t hurt, only time will tell if this year’s edition of the Pirates are the ones to finally take Pittsburgh back to the playoffs some twenty years after the black and gold of Bonds and Bonilla and Van Slyke finished their run of three straight division titles. The Pirates have done everything right in putting themselves in position to win the NL Central thus far; watching their attempt to graduate to the level of division champions promises to be just one of the stories that make for a great second half of the MLB season.