ARLINGTON, Texas – The Pittsburgh Pirates are winners for the first time since 1992.
Their 1-0 victory over the Texas Rangers on Monday behind a dazzling pitching performance from rookie Gerrit Cole saw to that.
But if you were expecting anything different following win No. 82 than the Pirates displayed in any of their other 81 victories this year, you’d be disappointed.
All win No. 82 did for the Pirates was get them closer to their ultimate goal — a World Series title. Snapping a drought of 20 years between winning seasons was just one of the small obstacles on their way towards that goal.
“Proud of it? Yes,” said Pittsburgh right-hander Jason Grilli, who’s still trying to work himself back into the closer’s role after a forearm strain put him on the disabled list in July. “But 82 wasn’t a goal to set and then say ‘We’re done.’ The significance of it is we’re winning.
“Practice winning and go from there. Check that off the bucket list I guess. But in the stages of what we’re trying to accomplish, that’s probably at the bottom of it.”
Grilli’s sentiment is shared by everyone in the clubhouse, but they also realize the significance of a winning record.
When the 1992 Barry Bonds-led Pirates lost to the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series, Pittsburgh was one of baseball’s elite organizations after three straight postseason trips. It didn’t last, though, as Bonds and the rest of the core departed. Pittsburgh’s high-water mark for the next 20 seasons was 79 wins twice, the first coming in 1997 and the second last year.
Fans had to endure 10 seasons of at least 90 losses, including two of at least 100, and playoff hopes all but lost well before the All-Star break.
Those painful memories seem a little more distance now. Since Clint Hurdle took over as manager in 2010, the Pirates have steadily improved by adding to their win total each season.
This year they’ve been one of baseball’s best teams all season and the fans have rewarded the team with 18 sellouts at PNC Park and the raising of the Jolly Roger flag 45 times.
“They (Pittsburgh fans) love winning,” said outfielder Marlon Byrd, who was a key August acquisition for the Pirates. “It’s a sports town, a blue-collar town. They love guys who work hard, but they also want their winners. They’ve been waiting a long time for this. We’re giving the city something to cheer about and it’s big.”
While the Pirates have had stars this year in the likes of Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Grilli and Francisco Liriano, the key component for the success starts with Hurdle.
Hurdle, who took the Colorado Rockies to the World Series in 2007, has been the stabilizing force Pittsburgh’s needed in its bid to get back into national prominence.
“They’ve got some talent over there,” said Texas manager Ron Washington, who had Hurdle as his hitting coach for the Rangers’ first trip to the World Series in 2010. “One thing Clint has always had is he can communicate. He’s always been able to get the best out of his personnel, whether he was a hitting coach or a manager.
“He’s a well-prepared guy. He’s very studious. He knows his opponents in and out. He knows his team in and out.”
Because he knows his team so well, Hurdle knows how insignificant win No. 82 is in the big picture. Monday’s win, which was the 16th shutout for Pittsburgh, snapped a four-game slide for the Pirates and closed the gap in the National League Central to St. Louis to only one game.
That’s what No. 82 meant to Hurdle.
“The division is priority one, and we’re not going to take our eyes off it,” Hurdle said. “We set that bar in spring training, and we’re going to keep that bar where we need it to be. These men have worked too hard for us to focus on something else. This is one of the closest races I’ve been in. You get to watch your team grow, to be challenged and stretch.”
Byrd, who scored the winning run Monday after doubling off Yu Darvish with two outs in the seventh, watched Pittsburgh’s growth from the opposing dugout the past few years. He was with the Chicago Cubs in 2010 and 2011 and with the Mets before coming over in an Aug. 27 deal.
Byrd said he could tell Pittsburgh was building a winning organization by the way the players carried themselves on the field the past few seasons.
That kind of attitude is one of the reasons McCutchen, the team’s biggest star and a Most Valuable Player candidate, decided to stay with the Pirates long term instead of test free agency.
“I want to be here because I’ve seen our team improving and getting better,” McCutchen said. “We’ve done that and we’ve shown that this year. It’s good to see the transition and, hopefully, we’ll continue to make history.”
So does No. 82 count as history for McCutchen?
“It was never our goal since I’ve been here,” said McCutchen, who began his Pittsburgh career with a 99-loss season in 2009. “It’s never our goal to have a winning season. It’s a goal to win a championship. Eighty-two means we’re closer to getting to where we want to go, and that’s the way we’re treating it in the clubhouse.”