Commentary | Pitching will determine if Pittsburgh Pirates break 20-year losing streak

Pitching will determine if Pirates snap 20-year losing streak

adell@bradenton.comFebruary 14, 2013 

BRADENTON

For long-suffering fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the rally cry is simple: Finish.

The Pirates' last winning season came in 1992, when the first George Bush was finishing up his presidency and Bill Clinton won election.

Generations of families have seen their kids grow up in Pittsburgh, lose their first teeth, graduate high school and even get married or go off to college -- all without watching their beloved baseball team have a winning season.

The twilight-zone frustration started with the front office's decision after the '92 season to dismantle the franchise, which cynics said was a coverup to do things on the cheap.

Whatever the reason, it has been a disaster.

There were many rock bottoms, perhaps the worst in 2010 when the Bucs lost 105 games.

But things have changed in recent years with General Manager Neal Huntington allowed to make moves

that have brought the team so close to turning into baseball's Cinderella story.

Pittsburgh is trying to solve the mystery of how to avoid a collapse and conclude a season while standing upright.

It has not been easy. The Pirates haven't had much practice.

The last time Pittsburgh had a winning season, many of its current players were only a few years out of diapers. But 20 straight losing seasons has a plus side. It has given the Pirates a rally cry.

It worked for the '69 Mets, so why not here and now in the Steel City?

They have come oh so close to ending North America's most embarrassing streak.

It's almost as if the Pirates have played four seasons in the last two years. In 2011, they were over .500 heading into August, and last year were 16 games above .500 after the first week in August.

But they couldn't finish.

The strong starts ended in disaster. The Pirates finished 18-41 in 2011 and 16-36 last season. That's a 44-77 record.

Losing is a hard habit to break. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is telling his players this year's team has a chance to do something special. Unfortunately, he has managed the team the last two years and, fairly or unfairly, could be identified as the problem if he can't change things quickly.

It looks as if the Pirates have more talent on this year's squad than any in the past two decades. The organization has run out of excuses, and fans shouldn't be expected to have more patience.

The addition of catcher Russell Martin from the New York Yankees gives Pittsburgh four guys who hit 21-plus homers last year, including two who had 30-plus.

Unfortunately, none of those four drove in 100 runs, mainly because there were not enough runners on base. The Pirates need to see the top of their order, projected to be left fielder Starling Marte and right fielder Travis Snider, become more productive and find their way to first base more consistently.

There is power in the middle of the lineup with center fielder Andrew McCutchen and third baseman Pedro Alvarez, and second baseman Neil Walker can stroke the ball.

Last season could be described as an unfair tease. A week into August, the Pirates looked as if they had turned the corner. Then pitching problems surfaced, and the team collapsed, though the 79-83 record has raised hope.

But fans don't want to hear excuses about injuries and lack of depth.

The time to win is now.

No matter how good the everyday lineup, getting through a 162-game schedule without a solid pitching staff is difficult.

So it might come down to how much the Pirates have improved their pitching staff. Closer Joel Hanrahan is gone to Boston, and Pittsburgh is banking on Jason Grilli to replace him, which makes some people nervous.

At 36, Grilli would be the oldest closer in the National League and third-oldest in the major leagues. He is a setup guy who pitched the eighth inning in 81 percent of his 62 appearances last year and has never been a closer.

For pitching depth, the Pirates acquired Francisco Liriano, the 2010 Comeback Player of The Year. He has his detractors, but the Pirates hope he can strike people out.

A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens and Kyle McPherson are the projected starters. They have put together some good outings, but won't wow you, though they are capable.

The offense should provide a boost over last year, but the Pirates' success will ride on their arms.

The team doesn't have to be a playoff contender. Fans would line the streets if the Pirates could just end that losing streak.

They don't believe it's asking too much. Twenty years is a long time.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112. Follow him on Twitter at@ADellSports.

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