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Column: At last, Pirates eyeing special season

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(Eds: Sports Columnist Jim Litke is on vacation. This is a replacement column. With AP Photos.)By PAUL NEWBERRYAP National Writer

With apologies to Bryce Harper and the first-place Washington Nationals - not to mention the individual brilliance of everyone from Josh Hamilton to Matt Cain - the Pittsburgh Pirates are the best story in baseball over the first half of the season.

Yes, the Pirates.

Sure, there are some non-believers, even in the Steel City. But this is a different Pittsburgh team.

Take Tuesday night, when the Pirates were one pitch from victory and blew it, just like they have so many times over the last two decades. Then in the bottom of the ninth, a baseball vagabond named Drew Sutton launched a massive drive over the center-field wall, the first walk-off homer of his career.

Pittsburgh is tied for first in the NL Central and eight games above .500 for the first time since 1992, which is about the last time anyone paid much attention to this team.

Actually, the Pirates are a National League franchise with quite a proud history, not that anyone who has checked in on them during the last generation or so would know that they were anything more than a Triple-A team in disguise.

You see, Pittsburgh has managed to put up an astonishing 19 losing seasons in a row, the longest streak for any professional franchise in any of the four major North American sports.

Nineteen!

Pittsburgh became a baseball wasteland as soon as Sid Bream - a former Pirates first baseman, no less - slid across the plate to give the Atlanta Braves an improbable victory in the '92 NL championship series. Barry Bonds left town shortly afterward, and the Pirates were done.

Now, just by pure chance, a big league club should stumble into a winning season every decade or so, even if they aren't really trying that hard. Heck, the Pirates could've broken their streak of total incompetence merely by winning as many as they lost one season. A .500 record isn't a losing record, but even that rather modest task has eluded these guys.

This year is looking a whole lot different.

They're cooking up something special in Pittsburgh, and for the first time in a long time we're not just talking about the NFL Steelers or the NHL Penguins, both of whom have won championships during the Pirates' long, bumbling run.

''We're playing for a lot more here,'' manager Clint Hurdle was saying the other night. ''We're playing for a city, the goal being to re-bond the city with its ballclub.''

Not surprisingly, a city that has been burned so many times isn't rushing out to the ballpark in huge numbers. The Pirates rank next-to-last in the NL with an average turnout of less than 25,000 per night, but the fans are slowly coming around to the idea that this will be the year, finally, that they have more wins in the column than losses.

They might go even further than that.

Sutton's homer gave the Pirates a wild 8-7 victory over the Houston Astros on Tuesday night, a gutsy performance that set off a justifiably raucous celebration at PNC Park, complete with a Gatorade bath and a shaving cream pie to the face for the hero.

But this was about far more than the final swing.

Pittsburgh trailed by four runs twice but rallied behind the play of Andrew McCutchen - rapidly establishing himself as the best all-around player in the game and an MVP candidate. But closer Joel Hanrahan couldn't hold it in the ninth, one of his rare stumbles this season.

The Pirates, circa 1993-2011, might've folded right there.

But, no, this team was just setting itself up for a truly memorable finish. Sutton sent one soaring out of the deepest part of the park, throwing up his arms like a giddy Little Leaguer as he rounded first base. A mob awaited him when he got to home plate, pummeling a player who has had very few experiences like this in his up-but-mostly-down career.

Sutton only turned 29 a few days ago, but he's already bounced around to seven organizations. This year alone, he's been with three teams - four, if you consider that the Pirates purchased him from Atlanta in May, sold him to Tampa Bay the very next day, then claimed him back from the Rays off waivers last week.

''Baseball is a roller-coaster, man,'' Sutton said. ''This reminds you why we do the grind we do as players, for little moments like this where it all melts away.''

Of course, the Pirates aren't counting on a journeyman like Sutton to carry the load. That role falls to the 25-year-old McCutchen, who doesn't get as much attention as the Hamiltons and Harpers of the world but is every bit the ballplayer they are - and then some. He's leading the NL with a .360 average, ranks among the top 10 in homers (16) and RBIs (54), and is pacing his team with 14 stolen bases.

He is an MVP in the making if the Pirates can stay in the playoff race.

''I played against him a little bit, but you don't get an appreciation of how consistent he is until you see him on everyday basis,'' Sutton said. ''I totally underestimated him as player: his speed, his ability to hit in big situations, the amount of ground he covers in center field. It all makes a great player. He's definitely a guy who's carried this team the last month or two.''

McCutchen aside, the Pirates don't exactly have a murderer's row of a lineup, but their pitching looks strong enough to keep them in the race for the long haul.

There's a bunch of hard throwers in the bullpen, with Hanrahan emerging as a normally reliable closer (20 saves), with Jason Grilli and Juan Cruz working the setup roles. All three have ERAs in the 2s and are averaging more than one strikeout per inning. The starting rotation was bolstered by the salary-dump acquisition of A.J. Burnett (9-2) and the emergence of James McDonald (8-3), who ranks sixth in the NL with a 2.45 ERA.

''A group of men committed to one goal, (when) nobody cares who gets the credit, can do some pretty exciting things,'' Hurdle said. ''So far, three-and-a-half months into the season, that's kind of the direction we're headed right now. But we know how hard it is as well.''

Indeed, let's remember the Pirates were leading their division a year ago in late July. They still managed to drop 90 games, extending their streak of losing seasons with plenty of room to spare.

But, as the Parrot mascot planted himself on home plate after Sutton's homer, waving a flag with that familiar and increasingly fearsome buccaneer logo, this didn't look like the same ol' Pirates.

''Right now, the way we're playing, it's nice. We're earning our way,'' Hurdle said. ''This city's hungry for a winner. These guys are hungry to win. But we've got a whole bunch of National League teams in front of us trying to keep us from that. And that's the challenge we're looking forward to embracing the rest of the way.''

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AP freelance writer Chris Adamski in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.

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Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

Tagged: Nationals, Pirates, Andrew McCutchen, Drew Sutton

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