Pirates' 'mythical' collapse is dead

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It's Aug. 21 and the Pirates are in first place -- by two games following their 8-1 win early this morning over the San Diego Padres and a loss last night by St. Louis. There is not going to be a collapse. The Pirates are for real. They may not win the division title but they are not going away.

That's two straight wins for the Pirates after losing seven of nine. It was those seven of nine that got to so many. It was a sure sign that another collapse was looming. But now, not so sure.

What some people cannot get their arms around is the fact the Pirates are not the only contender with weaknesses. All of us are too quick to point out the Pirates' shortcomings and the hopeless future that just has to be awaiting a team with such deficiencies.

The perfect team has yet to be built, folks. The fabled 1927 New York Yankees lost 44 games.

Yes, the Pirates lost seven of nine. But it wasn't too long ago that the Cardinals lost 11 of 15. Or that the Reds lost five in a row and six of eight.

Here's what you need to know: Since the All-Star Game, the Pirates are 18-14, St. Louis 15-17 and Cincinnati 18-13. That means in more than a month, the Reds, who trail by 3 1/2 games, have gained one-half game on the Pirates. At that rate, they'll catch the Pirates by spring training.

Of course, there's no guarantee that rate will continue. The Pirates might lose five straight and be in third place by next week. This is what's known as the beautiful agony of a pennant race. We haven't experienced it since 1992 so a lot of us don't know how to handle it.

There's only one way: Grab hold and enjoy the ride. It's going to be a great time.

And here's a couple of positives you might want to consider when times get tough -- you know, the next time the Pirates lose two in a row:

• Of the Pirates' 37 remaining games, 15 are against the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and Padres, teams that are a combined 47 games under .500 and 56 games out of first place.

• Of the 14 games the Pirates play between Sept. 12 through Sept. 25, up to the final weekend of the season, 11 are against the Cubs (54-71) and the Padres (56-70).

• The Pirates have six games remaining with both St. Louis and Cincinnati. So far this season they are 8-5 against St. Louis and 7-6 against Cincinnati.

But how can the Pirates compete with their gaping shortcomings?

Those cannot and should not be minimized. The team has received disappointing performances from first basemen Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez and are still searching, although not with enough desperation, for a right fielder -- and, no, Jose Tabata isn't the answer.

But St. Louis and Cincinnati have problems of their own. That's why that are behind the Pirates in the standings. Here's just one example:

• In the first half, St. Louis cleanup hitter Allen Craig batted .333 with an .872 OPS and drove in a run every 4.7 at bats. In the second half, his batting average is .232, his OPS .623 and his RBI/AB 8.

No team is flawless, not the Pirates, not the Reds, not the Cardinals.

And the Pirates have plenty going for them:

• Andrew McCutchen is arguably the best player in the National League.

• Despite two horrific performances in recent weeks, one by Francisco Liriano the other by Jeff Locke, they still have the lowest earned run average in the league.

• Pedro Alvarez leads the league in home runs.

• Neil Walker is coming on strong in the second half.

• Russell Martin is spectacular defensively and a key offensive contributor.

• Players like Josh Harrison, who had a bases-loaded triple last night, are making the most unexpected contributions.

The Pirates have a lot going for them and all it guarantees this: A thrilling, nerve-wracking, sometimes exhilarating/sometimes exasperating final 37 games.



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