Strange things are happening with the Pirates these days and almost all of them are good.
The team that limped through much of August, looking more the pretender than the contender, today has the look -- based on record and personnel -- of the best team in the National League Central Division.
On the strength of a 4-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers last night, combined with a St. Louis loss to Cincinnati, the Pirates have a two-game in the division and looking very much like not just the team to beat but the best team.
The deals of late August by general manager Neal Huntington have done exactly what they were supposed to do -- upgraded the team in areas of weakness.
But it was a deal Huntington made more than a year ago that was the difference last night. The widely ridiculed, and understandably so, Travis Snider, came off the bench last night to deliver a pinch-hit home run in the top of the ninth to become the Pirates hero du jour.
These are the small stories that combine to make an improbable tale come true.
Almost overlooked in the magnitude of this victory and what it means to the Pirates championship hopes was that it was the 81st win and guarantees a non-losing season for the first time since 1992. It's been a foregone conclusion for a long-time, as is win No. 82, but it was still a moment to savor for the many who have waited so long for this season.
As has been the case for most of the year, there was a long line of heroes in this win but none jumped out more than Snider, the reputed slugger who was given every chance to win the starting right-field job and continually failed.
But there he was last night leading off the ninth inning as a pinch-hitter for Vin Mazzaro and drilling a deep, no-doubt-about-it home run to right-center field to give the Pirates the run they needed to win the game.
It was the first home run for Snider, who spent all of August and the last few days of July on the disabled list, since June 15 and only the fourth of the season. But it was enormous in its importance.
It was only Snider's second MLB at bat since being added to the team's expanded roster Sept. 1.
Snider's improbable heroics followed another good start from Gerrit Cole, who gave up two runs in the first inning but no more for the next five . Cole was expected to be spectacular when he joined the Pirates. Instead, he's been steady and reliable.
Two of the newest Pirates combined with the oldest -- in terms of service -- to drive the offense. Andrew McCutchen scored all three runs, with the first coming on a home run in the first inning.
In the third he singled, when to third on a single by Justin Morneau, who had three hits, and scored on a single by Marlon Byrd. In the eighth, McCutchen walked, went to third on a Morneau single and scored on Byrd's double.
After pitching a scoreless seventh Mazzaro allowed the Brewers to tie the game in the eighth.
But then up stepped Snider for his biggest hit as a Pirates.
Mark Melancon earned the save but not without some drama. He gave up a two-out double to Scooter Gennett before striking out Khris Davis.
The Pirates have won four of six since panicking almost everyone by losing three straight Aug. 24-27.
With Francisco Liriano set to pitch the series finale tonight against the Brewers, a sweep is a real possibility and with it an opportunity to open up a three-game lead in the Central Division.
It wasn't that long ago people were talking about the Pirates being overtaken by the likes of Arizona or Washington. Now the teams attempting to overtake the Pirates are St. Louis and Cincinnati.
There's a still a long way to go, but the new-look Pirates are looking every bit as good, if not better, than their Central Division opposition and their two-game leads makes them the clear favorite.bobsmiziksports