That's right: The Pittsburgh Pirates have actually looked good so far this season. Not just decent -- good.
The Pirates have parlayed unexpectedly stellar starting pitching, clutch hitting, and aggressive base running to win three of four games in Chicago and St. Louis. Road wins, all, for a team that won just 17 on the road all last season.
Except for the season opener against the Cubs, all the games have been close and could have gone either way. But the Bucs have found ways to win, and they've looked scrappy, gritty and resourceful in doing it. What a refreshing change.
Jose Tabata and Neil Walker look like seasoned veterans and are playing more like bonafide, legitimate stars than the promising young second-year players everybody hoped to see. The Pirates' broadcast team threw out a couple of eyebrow-raising factoids the past couple of games: After the All-Star break last season, Tabata tied for the league lead in hits, with Colorado All-Star center fielder Carlos Gonzalez; and Walker tied for the league lead in RBIs, with none other than future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols. That is pretty good company.
Impressive, to say the least, and both Tabata and Walker have picked up right where they left off. Both are torrid. Scorching, in fact, with both hitting well over .400. Batting at the top of the order, Tabata (.429) and Walker (.412) are setting the table for the hitters behind them, particularly Andrew McCutchen, and both are pounding the ball with authority.
Walker, especially, has been driving the ball and has demonstrated consistently that he has a knack for hitting in the clutch. Last night in St. Louis, Walker went 3-for-4 with two RBIs and a run scored. With his two-run double in the sixth inning, he passed Philadelphia slugger Ryan Howard for the league lead in RBIs. He's also played generally excellent and occasionally superlative defense, as he did last night when he ranged far behind second base, slid on his knees to snare a sharp grounder, and snapped a strong, accurate throw to nab the runner at first.
For all that, the star of the game had to be the formerly woeful Charlie Morton, who pitched six strong innings, allowing just three hits and one earned run. Although he surrendered five walks, 60 of his 97 pitches were strikes. He attacked hitters and pounded the plate consistently with a heavy, biting sinker and a fastball clocked at 95 mph. He kept his poise when runners reached base and retired Pjuols on grounders to third all three times the two squared off.
Morton finally is showing confidence in his long-balleyhooed "stuff" and, all of a sudden, looks like the emerging star that everybody hoped he would become. It's as if he told himself, "Screw it, this is my last shot. I'm going to give it my best." Give him all the credit in the world, but apparently (based on some of the things he's said), new manager Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage deserve a ton of credit, too, for their direction, guidance and encouragement.
So far, so good. This edition of the Pirates look positively animated in contrast to last year's dispirited group led by the apparently somnambulent John Russell. Hurdle actually shows confidence in his players, which Russell and his predecessors most decidedly did not. Hurdle has let his pitchers pitch well into games, and they've rewarded his confidence with truly quality starts.
Tonight in St. Louis, James McDonald takes the mound for his first start of the year. At the beginning of spring training, McDonald looked to be pegged as the team's number one starter, based on his fine performance toward the end of last season. Now, by dint of a minor injury sustained this spring, he is the fifth starter. If McDonald pitches like he did late last season, and if the other four starters pitch nearly as well as they did in their first turns through the rotation, the Pirates could actually be legitimately competitive for long stretches. Granted, it's early, but it's nice to have a bit of hope for a change.
The team has warts, of course, and it's not good enough to overcome too many bonehead plays (Ronny Cedeno) and botched bullpen appearances (Evan Meek). Still, things are looking up, and the team has shown any number of pleasant surprises, from rookie reliever Mike Crotta's steady poise and efficient sinker, to Hurdle's intuitive and aggressive managerial style, to the aforementioned starting pitching and exciting play from Tabata, Walker, McCutchen and the promising Pedro Alvarez.
As much as Joey Porter's Pit Bulls bleed Black 'n Gold for the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins, we'll call a situation as we see it. We'll lambaste the Pirates when they stink, as they have so badly for so long, but we are more than happy to praise 'em when they do well.
It's been all too rare these past 18 years, and we're happy to see them show signs of life and play spunky, aggressive, legitimately competitive major league baseball. It's all we ask, really. It may not last, but give 'em credit. We're happy to do so.
The Battling Bucs.