Collier: Pirates make all the right connections

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Here on the first anniversary of their other-side-of-midnight mugging by Jerry Meals in Atlanta, the blown call at home plate that channeled a promising Pirates summer onto the shortest radius toward the edge of the earth, things are very different than they were July 26, 2011.

The Pirates are certainly different, meaning significantly better in the strictest bottom-line sense even as they're highly imperfect, and the most impactful difference keeps getting illuminated in the resilient way they do things.

"Our confidence is high, but I think our competitiveness is even higher," said reliever Jared Hughes, who tore through one of the bullpen's three scoreless innings Wednesday in the 3-2 clipping of the Chicago Cubs. "For us to win, we have to be extremely competitive, and it's one of those things you can see in everything we do."

Everything meaning everything.

"We play a lot of Connect Four on the road because all the clubhouses have it," Hughes said of the old vertical checkers game where the object is to ... yeah. "Me and Juan Cruz really get into it over that, and you can see we take the same kind of intensity out onto the field. Everybody does."

Hughes worked the seventh in the minutes after Garrett Jones gave the Pirates their first lead of the week, golfing a 1-2 pitch from Ryan Dempster into right to drive in Alex Presley. The Cubs went down in order against Hughes, who has run nine consecutive scoreless appearances together.

Connect Four? Connect Nine.

He has allowed one earned run in his past 11 innings and his 1.90 earned run average is one more very tough part of the fabric in a bullpen that's allowed only one run in its past 212/3 innings.

"We definitely feed off each other; we're out own little infantry out there," said Jason Grilli, who worked a scoreless eighth that trimmed his ERA to 1.91. "Everyone knowing their role is extremely huge. It allows you to pitch with confidence and it allows the manager to manage with confidence. I'll tell you what, it's not going to change."

When Joel Hanrahan followed Grilli with a 1-2-3 ninth, it meant not only that the Pirates had saved a 4-2 homestand, but that they lead the majors in saves (36) and in save percentage (86 percent).

The Pirates are 48-0 when leading after seven innings, 50-0 when leading after eight innings.

All that is the big part of the portentous difference this summer.

If division titles are won when you play at or very near .500 ball on the road while repeatedly abusing opponents at home -- and it says here that's precisely how they are won -- you might consider that these Pirates haven't really made a single misstep within that formula in three months.

They've had only one bad trip in 2012, going 3-6 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks on the first road assignments of the year, and they've endured only one unsuccessful homestand, a split of six games against the St. Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies.

It's topical because Clint Hurdle's team starts its longest road trip this season Thursday night in Houston, a 10-gamer that will include stops in Chicago and Cincinnati, where the National League Central-leading Reds will share the stage Aug. 3, 4, and 5.

The Pirates need to win only four or five times in that stretch. If two of the those wins came in Cincinnati it might be helpful, but there's nothing that can come of a 5-5 trip or even a 4-6 trip that couldn't be rectified in an 11-game homestand that begins Aug. 6 and includes the sluggish Diamondbacks and the dreadful San Diego Padres.

"I don't remember ever seeing 30,000 people here for one of these Wednesday day games," said Neil Walker, whose ninth homer came in the first inning. "I mean this is fantastic. It's awesome. We knew we had the talent in this room to bring this about. It's really exciting."

In fact, Walker hadn't ever seen 30,000 for a 12:35 weekday start. No one had. Wednesday's 33,935 was the largest such assemblage in the 12-year history of PNC Park.

It must have something to do with the Pirates having won 17 of their past 24 and Wednesday completing two solid months as essentially the best team in the National League (35-18 since May 25).

"We've created a real energy now," said Hurdle. "You see it here, feel it downtown; it's everywhere. It's up to us to push that forward."


Gene Collier:


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