The Pirates won their 81st game on Tuesday, ensuring an end to 20 consecutive losing seasons. Not usually a big accomplishment, but it's a big deal for a team like this. The team no longer has to hear questions about their historic stretch of futulity. The Pirates 20 year losing stretch was the longest streak in baseball history, and major North American sports history. It had to be as big of a sideshow as the Cubs 105 year championship drought. Things weren't always so bad in Pittsburgh. The Pirates won 2 World Series during the 1970's and 5 total. This is the same franchise who had great players like Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, Paul Waner, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargell play for it.
Pittsburgh's last winning season was in 1992, which was also the last time they made the playoffs. The 92 Pirates featured Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, Jay Bell, Doug Drabek, and Tim Wakefield. They came within a game of the World Series that year, losing in the 9th inning in Game 7 of the NLCS vs. the Braves.
After that season, things went downhill for the Pirates. Jim Leyland left as manager after the 1996 season and they have had several managers since then. Players such as Jason Kendall, Aramis Ramirez, Jason Schmidt, Jason Bay, and Jose Bautista were traded away for nickels on the dollar. The front office drafted poorly for years. Ownership wasn't committed to winning for years despite getting a nice ballpark in PNC Park, which opened in 2001.
Things are looking up in Pittsburgh this year. By this time, most residents are tuned in to the Steelers or thinking about the upcoming Penguins season. Not this year. The team is most likely heading to the postseason. The Pirates had 5 All Stars this year for the first time since the 70's. Clint Hurdle took over as manager before the 2011 season and vowed to turn this franchise around. It looks like he has. Hurdle once led the 2007 Rockies to the World Series, after a late run of dominance got them into the postseason. The Pirates have been bringing up a lot of young talent the last few years, and it's starting to pay off.
Pitching has been a big reason why the Pirates have been so good this year. Rookie lefty Jeff Locke made the All Star team after a strong first half. AJ Burnett has been a leader for the rotation since coming over from the Yankees last year in a trade. Francisco Liriano was a great pickup for the team, coming at a low cost. Liriano is showing the promise he did during his rookie campaign of 2006, when he was with the Twins. 2011 first round pick Gerrit Cole has also contributed at the major league level this year. Bringing in catcher Russell Martin has also helped the pitching staff out quite a bit. Martin's leadership has also helped keep the team from fading like it has in the past two seasons.
The bullpen has been dominant this year, one of the best in all of baseball. Jason Grilli took over as closer after the team traded Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox in the offseason. Grilli saved 30 games and made the All Star team before getting injured. He recently came off the DL. Mark Melancon was acquired in the Hanrahan deal, and made the All Star team as a setup man. Melancon filled in as closer very well in Grilli's absence and has a sub-1.00 ERA. Lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson have been very good out of the bullpen.
Andrew McCutchen is the team's best player by far. McCutchen is a five tool player and is having a MVP caliber season. He is the best all around player the Pirates have had since Bonds. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez leads the NL in home runs this year and was also an All Star. Alvarez probably will never hit for a high average, but is a good cleanup hitter. Sterling Marte was having a good season at the leadoff spot before getting hurt. Marte should be back before the end of the season. Pittsburgh native Neil Walker has also been on fire after a slow start this year.
The Pirates front office has went all in this season. Late in August, the team traded for outfielder Marlon Byrd, catcher John Buck, and first baseman Justin Morneau. The team had been going with a platoon of Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez at first base, but both will lose playing time to Morneau, with Jones playing occasional outfield. As a Cardinals fan, this team scares me since they played so well against them. I am happy to see that they finally ended their long strech of losing seasons, though.