Gene Collier: Only a beginning, right?

The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates' Comeback Season

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June had only just begun when Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, already frustrated with the consistent inconsistency of the 2013 Pirates offense, let his rhetoric collapse into blatant footballese.

"When we get people on base," the manager said, "we gotta keep moving the chains."

This was in his office some three hours before that night's game with the Reds. Hurdle discussed his hitters' lack of effectiveness with runners in scoring position, a problem that wasn't going away, and would never really go away, even if no one ever did see the chains.

A team too often struggling to score became the enduring subtext of a miracle. Even after all the accomplishments, all the cleansing brilliance of an historic summer, that was the way it ended, too. The Pirates scored just once in the first game of the National League Division Series, scored just once in the fourth game, giving the St. Louis Cardinals renewed postseason life, and scored just once on a fluke base hit in the fifth game, sending the Redbirds on to the championship series.

But that's not what I'll remember about the 2013 Pirates. I'll remember them more for what they became in some part due to the complete man-in-full arrival of Pedro Alvarez, despite the stubborn subtext, as a verifiable 30-homer, 100-RBI menace who almost made us forget Clyde Barnhart.

OK, that's not technically true, because just about everyone had forgotten Clyde Barnhart, a semi-reliable Bucco batsman who didn't hit as many homers in his nine-year career as Alvarez did in 2013 alone. Barnhart's last angry swing came in 1928, but one of Clyde's statistical claims to short-lived fame suddenly sprang to life thanks to Pedro. It was Alvarez's goofy single off the first base bag in that final postseason game that did it. That RBI single not only made Alvarez the first player in history to drive in runs in his first six postseason games, but it put back in play Clyde Barnhart's club record:

Most Consecutive Postseason Games With An RBI That Aren't Necessarily Your First Seven Postseason Games -- Uh, 7.

That's right, in a burst of October bombast that spanned Pittsburgh's appearances in the 1925 and 1927 World Series, Barnhart drove in runs in seven consecutive games, a record at which Alvarez should take aim at the first opportunity, October of 2014.

That's what you're hoping for, obviously, and with great sincerity, because you know that sometimes when the postseason goes away it doesn't come back for a long, long, long time. That's why you so fervently expect that babies born this October won't be able to buy a legal drink before the Pirates return to the playoffs again.

It wouldn't seem possible, that kind of stubborn generational futility, would it?

Not with these Pirates.

This ballclub as constituted, after all, never lost more than four in a row. As constituted, it led the league with 55 saves. As constituted, it allowed fewer hits than any Pirates team since 1960. As constituted, it won 50 times at PNC Park and strung together six winning months for only the 12th time in 127 years of Pirates baseball.

As constituted, it could be found in either first or second place every day after June 20.

That kind of team just doesn't turn around and walk back into the black forest, does it?

Well it shouldn't, and the formerly embattled Pirates front office should not be thinking in terms of preventing a relapse but rather of ensuring further progress.

As Hurdle said, when you get people on base, you've got to move the chains.

Alvarez becomes arbitration eligible in 2014, when the $700,000 he's being paid will look like couch-cushion change after an arbitrator weighs in on the going rate for humans who hit 36 homers and drive in a 100 runs. Management is on record saying it would like to prevent all this with a long-term arrangement, but don't expect that to be a terribly congenial process across the table from super agent Scott Boras.

Management is further on record with its desire to re-sign A.J. Burnett, who made $16.5 million this year (just over half of that in checks from the New York Yankees), and has retirement on a list of future options I'm pretty sure does not include taking a pay cut.

Plenty of tricky financial issues will pass through Bob Nutting's intra-office email in the coming months, and it won't be real difficult to judge how serious he is about returning to the postseason at the first opportunity.

Lest anyone forget, 2013 was an amazing ride, but the Pirates still haven't won a postseason series since 1979.

Somebody's gotta move the chains.

Whatever that means.

Gene Collier:

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