The St. Louis Cardinals aren't going to roll over and give the Pirates the National League Central Division title just because the Pirates added a quality left-handed bat in Justin Morneau Saturday, a mere four days after the Pirates acquired Marlon Byrd and John Buck. Nor are the Cincinnati Reds, for that matter. But that doesn't change the wonderful truth this morning. The Pirates are good enough now to take the division. They are good enough to win it all. The division. The National League pennant. The World Series.
"We do [believe that]," general manager Neal Huntington said late Saturday afternoon. "People probably will mock that statement, but we do."
Huntington and the Pirates get no ridicule here. They are absolutely right to feel good about their team and its postseason chances. They have as much chance to win as any of the other National League clubs that will make the playoffs -- the Cardinals, Reds, Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Let's look at what the Pirates are bringing into September beyond their 79-56 record and one-game lead over the Cardinals in the division race after they spanked the Cardinals again, 7-1, Saturday night at PNC Park:
• Three quality starting pitchers in Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton. Burnett was strong Saturday night, holding the Cardinals to one run and four hits in seven innings.
• A bullpen that has been baseball's best all season. It will get even stronger when Jason Grilli returns, perhaps this week.
• A lineup that picked up 17 home runs and 74 RBIs with Morneau, who was acquired in a trade with the Minnesota Twins. That's on top of the 21 home runs and 71 RBIs from Byrd and the 15 home runs, 60 RBIs and catching depth from Buck that came in a deal Tuesday with the New York Mets. Byrd made a difference in his first game with the Pirates with a three-run home run in a win against Milwaukee. Morneau, who is hot after hitting nine home runs in August, is expected to start today against the Cardinals.
"Justin is excited," manager Clint Hurdle said.
Not long after the trade was announced, Morneau jumped on a plane in Dallas-Fort Worth, where the Twins were playing, made it to PNC Park in the fourth inning and was in uniform on the bench in the sixth. He couldn't wait to take his first crack at the Clemente Wall in right field, although he wasn't needed Saturday night. That eagerness to get to a new team is a pretty good measure of a man's excitement.
"We're all excited," Hurdle said.
Huntington has put the Pirates in an excellent spot. The pitching and defense have been strong all season, but the offense frequently was lacking even before Starling Marte went on the disabled list. Now, with Morneau and Byrd, "The lineup plays out longer," Hurdle said. Russell Martin can bat seventh -- where he belongs despite hitting a home run Saturday for the second consecutive game -- instead of fifth. Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez no longer have to get so many at-bats at first base because of Morneau. There no longer is a bottomless hole in right field with Byrd. Jones can get some starts in right with Byrd moving to left if Jose Tabata falters. A healthy Marte will provide another huge boost when he returns to left field, perhaps by mid-September.
"To add two guys like that, we're very fortunate," Hurdle said of Byrd and Morneau. "We're a better team. We're a stronger team. We have a lot more options than we did four days ago."
Give some credit to Pirates ownership. Bob Nutting agreed to take on about $2.5 million in salary in the Morneau trade. That's real money.
"I think it's just more tangible evidence of what we've been doing," Hurdle said. "They backed up their talk and words with action."
Give more credit to Huntington. Hurdle praised his "persistence" in getting Morneau, Byrd and Buck. Huntington was able to add three quality major leaguers in exchange for three minor leaguers and another player still to be identified or cash.
All along, the Pirates could win games with pitching, defense and, occasionally, speed. Now, they can win more often with a three-run home run from someone other than Pedro Alvarez. Did I mention Byrd hit one Wednesday night? He went 2 for 4 Saturday with a double, an RBI and a run scored.
"It makes Clint's job a little easier because he has more weapons," Huntington said. "It gives him a lot of options. He can pick the match-ups based on the pitcher ...
"We're a deeper, more talented team. Our defensive versatility is better and we've upgraded our bench."
There are no guarantees, of course. There never are in sports. The Penguins thought they did what it took to win the Stanley Cup last season when they added Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen before the trade deadline. A lot of us believed that. But the team came up well short.
Sure, the Pirates might not do better in October than one wild-card game on the road.
But Huntington believes the club is built to go a lot deeper. So does Hurdle. So do the players.
I'm not willing to argue with them.roncook