On the Pirates: Success takes on many forms
Andrew McCutchen stops to sign autographs before the start of a game Tuesday against the Cubs at PNC Park.
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Not too long ago, Michael McKenry sat in a local Starbucks reading. Two older gentlemen nearby, oblivious to McKenry's identity, began talking in tones of disbelief about what the Pirates are doing this season.
"I had the biggest grin on my face the whole time," McKenry said. "It's just cool to see it from afar and from inside."
That disbelief will happen when a team that hasn't won more than 79 games for 19 consecutive season remains in a race for the division title as August approaches. The Pirates entered the weekend with a 56-42 record, two games behind the first-place Cincinnati Reds and atop the wild card standings.
The fans have noticed. Through Wednesday's games, 1,274,771 people came to 48 dates at PNC Park. That's an average of 26,557 -- nearly 3,000 more per game than this point last season.
The unusual nature of the season manifests itself in different ways. Walk-offs -- Rod Barajas, Drew Sutton -- come to mind. Back-to-back doubles from Clint Barmes and McKenry, the Nos. 7 and 8 hitters, in extra innings in Cincinnati off Aroldis Chapman rings a bell. For McKenry, the season's character displayed itself in the final game before the All-Star break.
"[Andrew McCutchen] got a standing O, [Garrett Jones] got a standing O, [Neil] Walker got a standing O," McKenry said. "Standing O with A.J. [Burnett] coming off the field that last day. I think that's been kind of the most memorable stuff that has happened to me this year.
"Just being around town, the way people come up to you and say thank you."
For McCutchen, the season's character displayed itself on the field July 18 against the Colorado Rockies. Two of the first three batters homered against James McDonald, and two more runs in the second inning gave the Rockies a 5-1 lead. A five-run third inning for the Pirates, including a three-run homer from Garrett Jones, erased the deficit and the Pirates went on to win, 9-6.
"I remember in years prior, we'd go down in the first inning, we'd be upset," McCutchen said.
"Now I don't care how many we're down. We know we have an opportunity, we have a team capable of coming back. We've showed that day in and day out. That's definitely one game that stands out for me."
They've engineered a comeback on a larger scale this season as well. They scored a major league-best 146 runs in June, dragging their offense out of the depths of a major run drought. Their 106 runs in July ranked second in the NL entering the weekend. They also were tied for the major league lead in home runs in July with 33. The result: A 31-17 record since June 1.
Jeff Karstens likes the impact that coming from behind, regardless of the outcome, has on the opposition.
"We might not win those games, but it carries out through the next day," Karstens said.
"To know that, you know what, we're not going to sit back and let you beat up on us. We're going to fight back. We may not win, but you're going to have something to play for the next day and you better watch out."
Jason Grilli has seen the season's character manifest itself in similar fashion as the others. People buy him and Barmes, his roommate, drinks when they go to dinner. Travelers thanked Grilli in the airport on his way home before the All-Star break. But for him, the most memorable aspect is something bigger.
"People don't get to see stuff that we do on the plane, on the bus, away from the field," Grilli said. "We hang out together. We genuinely like hanging out together, and that's a team. This is our family."
The Pirates added Wandy Rodriguez to that cohesive clubhouse in the first of what could be a few moves to strengthen the team before the trade deadline, and ensure that they don't squander the chance at a playoff spot they've given themselves.
Their 4.07 runs per game still rank below average in the National League. Their left fielders have a combined .571 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and their leadoff hitters have a .266 on-base percentage. Their team on-base percentage is second worst in the NL and they still rank second to last in walks and third to last in strikeouts. Fans remember all too well what happened in 2011, when Aug. 1 represented a big brick wall that the Pirates' promising season ran into head-first.
General manager Neal Huntington indicated after the Pirates acquired Rodriguez that he believed the team had enough minor league depth to continue to trade.
Whoever joins Grilli, Barmes and the Pirates for the stretch run will join a group of players who, according to Grilli, are enjoying the ride. There was no moment that crystallized it for him.
"When you look at it as a whole," he said with a smile, "it's all good, no matter which way you slice it."
Looking ahead: Cubs and the trade deadline
The Pirates will begin a three-game series Monday in Chicago against the Cubs. They also have until 4 p.m. Tuesday to trade for players without that player first having to clear waivers.
Their previous series against the Cubs at PNC Park last week underscored the fact that offensive issues remain. The Pirates scored four runs in the three-game series. They faced one of the NL's best starters, Ryan Dempster, and took the field against Jeff Samardzija and Paul Maholm when both had one of their best starts of the season. They Pirates had only 12 hits in the series.
The Cubs' offense wasn't much better, but the heart of the order did its damage. Alfonso Soriano went 4 for 8 with two doubles and a home run, and Anthony Rizzo went 2 for 3 with two RBIs in the final game of the series.
First Published July 29, 2012 12:00 am