MLB Insider: Winning season is nice, but Pirates chasing more

Posted Saturday, Sep. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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More information Top five Red Sox: Koji Uehara, Mike Napoli leading Boston’s resurgence. Braves: A few concerns: Jason Heyward’s jaw, sub.-500 on the road. Dodgers: Down to a matter of hours until they clinch the NL West. A’s: With the offense awakened, Oakland will be tough to catch. Cardinals: Remaining schedule is favorable for the division title. Bottom five Astros: Have already circled 100-plus losses on the 2014 schedule. Marlins: Miami to play at Houston next July in the worst series ever. White Sox: Fading so badly they should be called the Transparent Sox. Cubs: Wait ’til next year mercifully has only two weeks remaining. Brewers: Refusing to pull away in race to avoid NL Central basement.

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The team that blew through Arlington last week might not be as good as it showed against a Rangers team that was playing as if it had scheduled a group-bonding golf retreat for the first week of October.

Pittsburgh, though, is good, playoffs good, and the Pirates will be playing baseball at some point early next month, either in the National League wild-card game Oct. 1 or in one of the two division series that begins Oct. 3.

The postseason has always been the goal since Clint Hurdle took over after helping the Rangers get to the 2010 World Series as their hitting coach. The winning season the Pirates have posted this season, their first since 1992, is a feel-good story, but it’s not the whole story in the Steel City.

“The division is priority one, and we’re not going to take our eyes off of it,” Hurdle said. “We set that bar in spring training, and we’re going to keep the bar where it needs to be. These men have worked too hard for us to focus on something else.”

The hard work includes the job done by the front office, which built one of the best bullpens in the game and pulled the trigger on enough in-season trades to help fill in holes on an offense that can struggle to score runs.

Andrew McCutchen is the All-Star and the MVP candidate, clearly the Pirates’ best player, but no one else in the lineup hits above .300. If not for the addition of Marlon Byrd, it’d be hard to find many hitting above .275.

But, as the Rangers have seen firsthand while watching Oakland the past two seasons, players who know their roles and accept those roles can make a team flourish. The Rangers also saw the stable of power arms the Pirates have in the bullpen they have dubbed “the Shark Tank.”

It’s an unlikely group, headed by former Rangers reliever Jason Grilli and onetime Rangers punching bag Mark Melancon. The last time the Rangers had seen Melancon, from the great state of Colorado, he was getting booed off the mound at Fenway Park after surrendering three homers and six runs while retiring no one on April 17, 2012.

Grilli was an All-Star closer, but a forearm strain set him back six weeks and propelled Melancon into the closer role. He pitched so well that Hurdle made Grilli a set-up man upon his return from the disabled list.

“I’ve been locating a lot better and throwing a lot more cutters. Everything is better,” said Melancon, who was dealt to the Astros in 2010 as the Yankees acquired Lance Berkman to boost their playoff hopes.

“We’ve pitched a lot of innings and kept us in a lot of games. It’s been a huge part of our success. All year in every situation it seems like someone has picked the next guy up on a game-to-game basis.”

No other pitcher or player is more of an unlikely contributor to the Pirates’ playoff run than Byrd, another former Rangers player. Byrd was banished 50 games last year for testing positive for a banned substance, and in an effort to save his career played a full winter season in Mexico.

He won a Caribbean Series championship, landed a minor-league deal with the Mets, and played well enough to be sought after at the July 31 and Aug. 31 trade deadlines. He was dealt from New York to Pittsburgh on Aug. 27 to plug the Pirates’ hole in right field.

The time in Mexico, where the breaking ball dominates and the facilities are miserable, made him a better player at age 36.

“It was something I needed to do … but it was a blessing in disguise,” Byrd said. “I got to go down there and work hard and work on my swing and focus on my routine. It was a lot tougher because there was only one stadium that had a cage. You had to figure out how to get your work in.”

He and the Pirates have earned at least an extra day of work once the regular season ends. They haven’t officially clinched a postseason spot, which would be the Pirates’ first since Sid bleeping Bream beat a wide throw from a pint-sized Barry Bonds to score the deciding run in the 1992 NL Championship Series.

Pittsburgh remains in the hunt to win the top-heavy NL Central, but could also finish third in the division and have to travel for the wild-card game. The sense is that it won’t matter much to the city, which has seen the Steelers and Penguins take home championships as the Pirates were collecting high draft picks.

Those high draftees — hello, McCutchen (11th overall, 2005), Pedro Alvarez (second overall, 2008) and Gerrit Cole (first overall, 2011) — have started to come home, and players such as Melancon and Byrd have found a home, even if just for one year or a few weeks.

Pittsburgh has been waiting, and deserves this Pirates season.

“It’s a sports town. It’s a blue-collar town,” said Byrd, who broke in with the Pirates’ cross-state rival in Philadelphia. “They love guys who work hard, but they want winners, too. They’ve been waiting a long time for this. We’re finally here. We’re giving this city something fun to cheer about.”

Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @JeffWilson

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