Pirates' key to breaking postseason curse: Avoid another summer slump

ANAHEIM, Calif. – It was the first day of summer, and summer hadn't been kind to them for a while, which can be bothersome for a baseball franchise. The current Pittsburgh Pirates bear only a few fragments of the previous 20 summers. It's the city that carries the rest, and a generation of fans who wouldn't know a winning baseball team if it bit them in the Bucs.

So, you stand on the threshold of their clubhouse for a long weekend at Angel Stadium, look from locker to locker, the name placards and the jerseys that hang beneath them, and wonder if these are the guys. If these are the ones.

On the same date two years before, they were a game under .500, four games out of the National League Central lead. That team lost 90, disaster No. 19. A year ago they were 36-32, on their way to first place in July. That team collapsed in mid-summer, disaster No. 20.

This team no doubt believes it is different, just as all the others did, and we'll all know if it really is or not in a few months. After another summer.

These Pirates are 44-30. In a division with the St. Louis Cardinals, who have the best record in the game, and the Cincinnati Reds, who won 97 games last year, the Pirates are in second place, three games back, with the second-best record in baseball.

Broadly, they hit a little and defend a little. They pitch a lot. Their only player in the NL's top 30 in OPS is Andrew McCutchen. For a franchise that hasn't pitched with the best in the league since Doug Drabek was in his prime, since Tim Wakefield was a rookie, since Barry Bonds was a Pirate, a ballclub in Pittsburgh that leads with its arms qualifies as a significant development.

From the threshold of the locker room, then, your eyes go to Jeff Locke, the 25-year-old left-hander from New Hampshire with the moppy hair and crooked grin. He is 6-1. His 2.01 ERA through 15 starts leads the league. Four years ago, the Atlanta Braves included him in a trade for Nate McLouth. Today, of the five starters on the Pirates' opening day roster (he was the fifth of those), Locke is the only one still taking his regular turn.

Fifteen feet away, right-hander Gerrit Cole sat with headphones clamped over his ears, leafing through tendencies of Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Mark Trumbo. Big, strong and wide, he was the first pick in the draft two years ago. This would be his third big-league start. In the first he had beaten Tim Lincecum. In the second, Zack Greinke. On Friday night, he'd beat Jered Weaver. Eight times on the Angel Stadium gun he'd register fastballs of at least 100 miles per hour. Two of them glowed "101."

"I let a few go tonight," Cole admitted afterward. "I did do that."

Francisco Liriano, who is 5-3 and still only 29 years old, looked on from nearby.

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Only the Braves' bullpen is better than these Pirates. Closer Jason Grilli, given a chance at the ninth inning after a career in the middle innings, has protected 26 of 27 leads. A big man with lots of hair and an enormous personality, he came and went in the same corner of the locker room. Mark Melancon, a bit of a disaster with the Boston Red Sox in '12, traded with four others for Joel Hanrahan in the offseason, and now ridiculously efficient in the eighth inning, poked around for something in his locker.

Are these the guys? Are these the ones?

It turns, perhaps, on the veteran among them. He is lanky, tattooed, road-hardened and walking on a bum calf. He was good enough once to pull $82.5 million from the New York Yankees, a contract the Yankees are still paying on. Traded to baseball's purgatory, A.J. Burnett is 20-16 with a 3.39 ERA as a Pirate. He's never been better. Currently on the disabled list (along with Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald), Burnett will return to the rotation in time to influence the summer, and in the meantime he conducts conversations with the likes of Locke and Cole and Brandon Cumpton about the big world out there. Maybe this seems to you incongruous with Burnett's reputation. Maybe it seems incongruous to Burnett. As he said, he's no Roy Halladay, no Andy Pettitte, no Greg Maddux.

"They're looking at me," Burnett said with a grin, "in ways I never looked at myself."

If there are a thousand reasons the Pirates will become relevant again, then there are at least as many they won't. And so a commitment as simple and significant as Burnett's to the coming generation of Pirates, to a kid such as Locke who'd come up in two prior seasons and couldn't quite get it right, that counts. Once, Burnett couldn't get it right.

"If I knew then what I know now," Burnett mused.

Burnett and Locke stood together in the Citi Field outfield last year. Locke was overwhelmed. The season was nearly done. He'd pitched decently at times, not so well in others. But he looked back over his five late-season starts and thought, "There wasn't one – not one – where I'd go home that night and think, 'You know what? I'll take that.' I didn't know if I was ever going to do anything right."

Burnett, basically, said that was entirely up to him. That he controlled his confidence, that he could compete to stay on the mound, that he did not ever have to let hitters know who he was. And, you know, maybe develop that two-seamer a little more.

"Sometimes you gotta hear it from somebody else," Locke said. "He was my somebody else."

Now they do their pre-game stretching together. They hang out together. On Friday night, the first day of summer, they left the ballpark together. It was late, the first bus already had run a handful of players to the hotel. The second bus waited. The Pirates had won again. Cole had been a force. The bullpen had been taut. The offense had done just enough. The locker room was nearly empty.

As the last of them walked through the back door, it occurred to you. It's summer, and these just might be the guys. For a thousand tiny reasons, they might be the ones.

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