Over the last 18 years, the Pirates have been the black eye of Major League Baseball, owning a losing record in each and every season since 1992. After last year's disastrous season in which they went 57-105, the Pirates have shocked the world and are now 1.5 games back as of July 5th, 2011. Winners in 9 of their last 13 games, Pittsburgh is looking past the .500 record that has alluded them this late in the season for the past 12 years, and is now looking at the division.
The Pirates signed Clint Hurdle to change the mindset of the franchise by ignoring the past and looking to approach each game individually. So far this season, his leadership has been the biggest factor in turning the team around. In mid-May, the Bucs lost 6 straight games and were looking like a team ready to start their late-Spring slide. They responded by winning 4 straight to remain afloat. Now at 44-41, the Pirates are looking to start a winning streak that could propel them into first place by the All-Star break.
Andrew McCutchen has been the biggest offensive factor hitting .294/.392/.498 with an .890 OPS. But the biggest factor in this turnaround is the pitching staff. After owning the worst ERA last year, the Pirates are 8th in all of baseball with a team ERA of 3.42. Kevin Correia is tied with the NL lead in wins with 11 and Jeff Karstens is 5th in the NL in ERA with 2.65. Joel Hanrahan has been a perfect 25-25 in save opportunities which has essentially shortened the game to 8 innings. With the rotation showing similar success, the Pirates have been tough to hit against and therefore, tough to beat.
One thing the Pirates haven't done to become successful, is spend millions of dollars on free agents. The squad is made up of young prospects and a few veteran players. The team appears to be a tight-knit group who hustles not only because they are required to, but because they realize it is a key to their success. Matt Diaz, in a recent post game interview, outright stated the team was not talented enough to take plays off. The players have bought into Hurdle's philosophy of playing hard on every play and focusing on each and every game.
"We're coming to the park expecting to win everyday," says Jeff Karstens.
That is the pinnacle of what baseball use to be; players playing for a small salary but having fun and working hard at every opportunity. This team is easy to root for because, as far as athletes go, they are comprised of kids who are focused on winning games and not contract numbers. Sure, negotiations will happen down the road and Andrew McCutchen may get a bajillion dollars in the near future. But right now, this team is focused on winning and that spirit has sorely been missed in a league where $10 million contracts are passed out like candy.