The key to the Pirates’ improvement, though, is the same as the key to improvement for every struggling franchise: pitching.
Last year, the Pirates finished 79-83. Their team on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) was .699. Their team ERA was 3.86. This year, the Pirates are 85-61. Their team OPS is .708. Their team ERA is 3.29.
So while Hurdle speaks of an improved competitive spirit and Pirates GM Neal Huntington has traded for bats such as Morneau and Marlon Byrd to bolster a shallow lineup, it’s the improved rotation that has made the Pirates contenders.
Liriano has reached a career-best 16 victories, and the Pirates have six starters — Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton and Wandy Rodriguez — with ERAs between 2.92 and 3.59, as well as five key relievers with ERAs of 2.62 or better.
What worries the Pirates is that their pitching depth and late-season trades might not matter much if they fail to win the division and are forced into a one-game wild-card playoff.
“We are committed to doing big things,” Walker said.
In terms of Pirates history, they already have.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org