COMMENTARY | The Pittsburgh Pirates haven't finished the regular season with a winning record since a much slimmer Barry Bonds was patrolling left field for them way back in 1992.
Halfway through the 2013 campaign, these Pirates find themselves not only above .500 but also battling for the best record in baseball.
Manager Clint Hurdle had his club in a similar position midway through the 2012 season, only to come up just short of what's been eluding the franchise for 20 consecutive years.
So what makes this year's team any different from last year's?
As far as the roster is concerned, not much.
During the offseason, the Pittsburgh front office added veteran catcher Russell Martin and injury-plagued starting pitcher Francisco Liriano. Aside from those additions -- and the subtractions of starters Kevin Correia and Eric Bedard -- these Pirates look the same as last year's.
However, that all changed just a couple months in.
The club's top three starting pitchers entering the season all found themselves on the disabled list. James McDonald went down with a right shoulder injury in late-April, followed by A.J. Burnett (calf) and Wandy Rodriguez (elbow) in early-June.
Suddenly, a team built around its pitching staff was at a loss for starting pitching. The Pirates were forced to call upon a couple of young arms to come in and steady the ship.
And have they ever.
Jeff Locke, 25, who began the season as a bottom-of-the-rotation guy, is ranked second in the NL with a 2.15 ERA and has posted an 8-2 record in 18 starts.
Then there was the call-up of former first overall pick, and a guy who can hit triple-digits on the radar gun, Gerrit Cole. All the 22-year-old did was win his first four starts as a major league pitcher with a 3.70 ERA. And, oh by the way, the first of those two wins came against Tim Lincecum and Zack Greinke -- former Cy Young award winners.
If Pittsburgh fans are looking for a reason to believe this year's second half will play out differently than last year's, the combination of Locke and Cole is a great place to start.
The duo has combined to throw more than 138 innings with an ERA just above 2.54. Compliment that with Liriano's 8-3 record in nearly 70 innings of work with a 2.20 ERA, and it's no wonder the production hasn't slipped with their top three guys out.
Manager Clint Hurdle alluded to his pitching depth on ESPN Radio's "SVP & Russillo" show July 3.
"It starts on the mound, the effort off the mound. We're 11 deep in the starting rotation in the first half of the season. We just played game one of the second side, so we've been challenged with adversity from that angle … Starting pitching has gotten us to the bullpen when we want to use them, not when we have to use them. Our bullpen has been fantastic."
Fantastic, you say?
Well, Hurdle might not be that far off. Ultimately, pitching staffs are only as strong as their relief core -- and it doesn't get much better than the group Pittsburgh has.
Justin Wilson, 25, has seen the most work with 50 innings pitched in 34 games and posting an ERA of 1.98. Wilson came into the season with only eight appearances in his entire career and has quickly become another reliable young arm producing in a big way.
The best of the bunch just might be setup man Mark Melancon, who, at the age of 28, is pitching the best baseball of his career. In just over 42 innings of work, Melancon has given up only four runs, recorded 44 strikeouts and 24 holds, and has carved his way to a 0.85 ERA.
After all, the more fresh arms down the stretch the better.
Then again, fresh is a relative term. Just ask 36-year-old closer Jason Grilli, who's played for six major league teams over his 10-year career. He may be the oldest guy on the team, but he's pitching like he's one of the fresh arms.Grilli's a near-perfect 28-for-29 in save opportunities this year for the Pirates -- a role he's settled into quite nicely for a first-time closer. The biggest reason for his success can be traced back to his 14.34 Ks per 9 innings this season. With an average velocity on his fastball hovering around 93.5 mph, old is beginning to look like the new young for Grilli.
It wasn't, however, as much a fresher, or even younger, arm that the Pirates needed in left field back in '92. It was a stronger one from the NL MVP that year, Barry Bonds.
Who knows how the franchise's history would've been different had he thrown out Atlanta's Sid Bream at home in the NLCS. Instead, the Pirates' season ended and marked the last time they would finish above .500.
Will fresh arms, young and old, finally change the Pittsburgh Pirates' fate in 2013?
Stay tuned.Kevin Connelly is a Pittsburgh native who's been alive for five of the city's 14 sports championships. He has a journalism degree from the University of Tennessee and is currently a sportswriter at The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio.
- Sports & Recreation
- Clint Hurdle
- Pittsburgh Pirates
- Barry Bonds