When Jason Grilli struck out Ike Davis in the eighth inning of Tuesday's game against the New York Mets, he secured a franchise record for the 2012 pitching staff. • Grilli's strikeout was the Pirates' 1,125th of the season, surpassing the franchise record set in 1969.
• • • •
"I know it's a sexy statistic," Grilli said. "I think what it really portrays for me, and how this pitching staff went about their business, is that we went ahead and attacked people."
That 1969 team received 213 strikeouts from Bob Veale, 173 from Dock Ellis and 147 from Steve Blass.
This season's strikeout total underscored the changes that gripped the staff, which finished dead last in the National League in 2011 with 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings. They added A.J. Burnett, who has provided a team-leading 177, and Erik Bedard, who struck out 118 in 1252/3 innings before he was released. James McDonald struck out 100 batters in 110 innings in the first half of the season.
But most impressive is Grilli, manager Clint Hurdle's go-to setup man. Grilli had struck out 85 in 562/3 innings entering the weekend, or 13.5 per nine innings.
"Strikeouts can be pretty key and important when you need them to be, because it puts the defense in a more relaxed state," Grilli said. "You don't have to field every ball cleanly.
"To have a record that's combined and held by everybody that's come through here and toed the rubber is huge. I think that's a good feather in all of our caps."
Pedro Alvarez's home run in the first inning Tuesday put the Pirates in the company of Brian Giles. Garrett Jones' homer in the ninth gave them a greater peer: Willie Stargell.
Alvarez's 30th home run gave the Pirates two 30-home-run hitters for the first time since 2001, when Giles hit 37 and Aramis Ramirez hit 34. Jones' 25th gave the Pirates three players with 25 home runs for the second time in franchise history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Stargell hit 33, Roberto Clemente 29 and Donn Clendenon 28 in 1966.
Andrew McCutchen formed the remainder of each grouping.
Entering the weekend, the Pirates had 166 home runs, which ranked fourth in the National League. They were 14th with 107 last season.
"I think it's more a matter of guys coming into their own, growing, understanding what they want to do at the plate, seeing pitchers over and over again," said Neil Walker, who had a career-high 14 home runs this season.
The power Alvarez displayed was the greatest difference in the home run total. He hit four last season and had a .289 slugging percentage. This season, his slugging was at .472 entering Friday's game.
"There's a lot of guys that are young on this team still," Walker said. "When you have that, there's always that unknown in terms of knowing what pitchers want to do to you, how pitchers are going to attack you. The second time through the division we saw the same pitchers, we handled them pretty good."
A few spring trainings back, then-Colorado Rockies manager Clint Hurdle was discussing personnel with his bench coach, Jim Tracy. They wanted to find a way to classify their players, and Tracy posited a theory.
There are three kind of players, Tracy theorized: survivors, contributors and winners. Hurdle liked the notion, took it to the Texas Rangers as their hitting coach the following year and later brought it with him to Pittsburgh.
As the Pirates slumped in the second half of the season, Hurdle said he saw some of his players slip into survival mode, trying to stay in the majors at all costs.
"It becomes about isolation, it becomes about a one-centered goal versus a team goal," Hurdle said. "I think that would be something we could also put our finger on. We let our identity slip from us in what we needed to do based on the results we were getting on the field."
The challenge for Hurdle becomes helping the players leave survival mode and regain their ability to contribute and win. He mentioned some of the conditioning techniques the Pirates employ with their minor league players, including military-style training, as a way of connecting with a young ballplayer and preventing him from focusing on himself. The same principle applies with the major leaguers.
"I can sit them down and talk to them about Colin Powell for 15 minutes, they're going to walk out of the room," Hurdle said. "For our guys, we got to look for different ways."
Looking ahead: Braves
The Atlanta Braves come to PNC Park for the final three games of the regular season with a playoff berth under control.
Entering Friday, the Braves held the first NL wild-card spot and led the St. Louis Cardinals by seven games. They trailed the front-running Washington Nationals by four games in the NL East.
Right-hander Kris Medlen, who had Tommy John ligament replacement surgery in August 2010 and did not pitch until last September, has led the Braves' staff in the second half. In 11 starts since joining the rotation in late July, he is 8-0 with a 1.04 ERA. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has lined Medlen up to pitch in the one-game wild card playoff Friday.
Wednesday's game will be Chipper Jones' last regular-season game. Jones, the 40-year-old switch-hitter, 1999 NL MVP and eight-time All-Star selection, plans to retire after the season.