COMMENTARY | The Pittsburgh Pirates are currently engaged in the most important baseball series they've played since 1992, the last time the team had a winning season.
It's been a remarkable journey so far for a group that hardly anyone expected to many any noise this year. The players certainly aren't getting ahead of themselves; they know there are still 58 games left in the season, 13 of them coming against St. Louis. That's going to make for some intense competition between two teams separated by half a game in the standings, two teams that also happen to be some of the best in baseball.
But at the same time, it's amazing to look back at the team's first 104 games of the season and see what they've accomplished thus far. Obviously, all the records and achievements listed below are meaningless in the big picture, but they help illustrate the point that this team isn't simply a flash in the pan, not simply a bunch of lucky ballplayers destined for collapse and failure.
Some of the records are relatively new, such as Francisco Liriano becoming the first Pittsburgh Pirate since Dock Ellis in 1971 to win 11 of his first 15 starts of the season. The resurgent lefty, who missed the first month of the season after breaking his non-throwing arm while playing with his children, achieved that feat July 29 in a game against the Cardinals, a game that catapulted the team to within a half a game of first place in the National League Central. For icing on the cake, Liriano owns a 2.16 earned run average on the season. That number would be good for the fourth-best ERA in all of baseball, if only Liriano had enough innings pitched to qualify.
The pitcher with the third-lowest earned run average in baseball? That would be Jeff Locke, he of the 2.15 ERA, good enough to land him a spot on the All-Star team. That's the same Locke who only recently had a 16-game unbeaten streak broken earlier this month, posting an 8-0 record in that span. Many fans can also remember earlier this season, a time when Locke had several instances of pitching 10 innings or more without giving up a run.
There are many more. Jason Grilli, an All-Star, recorded 30 saves in 96 games, the fastest Pirate ever to reach 30 saves since the statistic was enacted in 1969. Mark Melancon, the new closer with Grilli sidelined, owns a 0.91 earned run average and made the All-Star game, an odd yet deserving feat for a setup man. A.J. Burnett led the National League in strikeouts earlier this year before landing on the disabled list. He still ranks second in the league with a 9.83 strikeouts per nine innings ratio.
Unfortunately, there aren't nearly as many record-breakers on the offensive side of the diamond. Pedro Alvarez leads the National League with 27 home runs. Russell Martin leads the majors with 25 caught-stealing throw-outs on the season. As a team, the Pirates became the first in the majors to reach 50 wins this year, the first time the team has done that since 1960.
But, again, none of it matters. That's because the most important record remains intact, yet to be broken after 20 dark years of meaningless baseball. But that's all changed now as the team seems poised not only to break the chain of losing seasons, but also to make the playoffs for the first time in decades.
The players don't care about anything else and, right now, most fans likely don't care about much else. For now, the only thing that matters is the St. Louis Cardinals and the current home stand at PNC Park, which is indisputably the most important in the last 20 years.
Jared Stonesifer has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates for MLB.com on a freelance basis since 2010. He lives in Pittsburgh.
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