Souhan: Long-suffering Pirates fans get reason to party, but players eye more

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 13, 2013 - 12:24 AM

But the team, not satisfied with ending 20 years of losing, could be a dangerous playoff contender.

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Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano (47) delivers during the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals in Pittsburgh Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) ORG XMIT: MIN2013083020552587 ORG XMIT: MIN1308302057460267

Remember all of those playoff losses the Twins suffered when they had Justin Morneau and Francisco Liriano in their prime?

No, you don’t.

Because of timing and injuries, they never played in a single playoff game together. Combined, they were on the field for one playoff game victory, when the Twins beat the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS in 2004 with Morneau batting cleanup and Liriano in the minors.

Now with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the two former Twins should be careful not to lament their lack of postseason success, at least not out loud and in front of their new teammates. When it comes to persistent losing and a lack of postseason success, the Pirates are without peers.

“I’ve been hearing about this for as long as I can remember,” said Pirates second baseman and Pittsburgh native Neil Walker. “That’s why this year is so much fun.”

Last week, the Pirates won their 81st game, breaking a streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons, the longest ever by a franchise in one of the four major North American sports. This week, they’re dueling with the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the best organizations in the game, for first place in the NL Central.

That 81st victory came on a Tuesday night in Milwaukee, and was celebrated more by Pirates fans and national media than by the Pirates themselves.

Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen said, bluntly, “This means we don’t have to face these negative questions anymore.”

Manager Clint Hurdle explained that winning 81 games was never his goal. “Some of these guys have been here a week,” he said. “Some guys have been here two years. I’ve been here three years. The one missed connection, I think, is a lot of people we have haven’t been here for the last 20 years.

“We honor the angst and frustration our fan base has on a lot of different levels, but we don’t want to carry that bag around.”

He carries his phone around, so he heard from his neighbors in the Pittsburgh hills anyway after Win No. 81. “A tremendous number of texts,” he said.

And he works for the Pirates, so when the family of the late Roberto Clemente visited the Pirates dugout earlier this season at PNC Park, he heard from them. “That was a common theme from the two sons,” Hurdle said. “They look you in the eye, and they spoke from the heart. This was something they really wanted us to take care of. I got that, loud and clear.”

Hurdle likes to joke that when he took over as manager, any Pittsburgh kid wearing Pirates gear would get beat up by kids wearing Steelers gear. Now he sees school buses filled with kids wearing the capital P.

Walker has always worn a Pirates cap, first as a kid cheering for “Andy Van Slyke, Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds running around the turf at Three Rivers Stadium,” then as a member of the organization after they made him a first-round draft pick in 2004.

“For a person like myself who has been so endeared to Pirates baseball since I can remember, this is a pretty cool thing,” Walker said. “As a team, we’re not too fired up about it, but having been a part of it and knowing the struggles that have gone on for the last two decades, it’s a pretty cool day.

“I’ve been hearing about this for as long as I can remember. I heard it before I was drafted, and especially as we got close to 20 years straight, got close to being some kind of North American record.

“It’s really cool for me because of the connection I’ve had with the city and the organization. I know all these other guys in the clubhouse are looking at me sideways, like, it’s just a number, but this is really awesome to be a part of.”

McCutchen is the Pirates’ star, a potential MVP who shows off speed, power and spectacular fielding. Scouts say he might be the current big-leaguer most comparable to Twins phenom prospect Byron Buxton, although Buxton might hit for more power.

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. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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