MILWAUKEE — At this time last year, a prevailing sense of optimism seemed to follow the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise. After taking the lead in the NL Central one game into the second half of the 2011 season, the Pirates seemed to be on the brink of turning around what had for so long been the league’s most familiar losing franchise.
Eighteen straight losing seasons had worn on the Pirates — there’s no doubting that. And as the team collapsed in August, drifting from first in the NL Central to 10 games back in just two weeks, that similar sense of defeat reared its head in Pittsburgh.
As Brewers fans know quite well, Milwaukee soon slipped into that first-place spot, riding the rest of the season to its first-ever division title as the Pirates continued to tumble.
A fourth-place finish in the NL Central gave Pittsburgh its 19th straight season below .500, a streak dating back to a certain 1992 slide into home during the NLCS by Atlanta’s Sid Bream — a moment that would live in infamy in the Steel City.
This season, Pittsburgh finds itself in somewhat familiar yet uncomfortable territory. The Pirates are again in first place in the NL Central. Again, pundits have them pinned as potential contenders. Again, hopes are high.
But 19 years of losing begs an obvious question. Are this year’s Pittsburgh Pirates for real?
Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez was a part of six losing Pirates teams early in his career. But he says that this year’s Pirates are different.
“If you’re in first place by the All-Star break, you’re doing something right,” Ramirez said Friday as the Brewers and Pirates opened a three-game series. “Of course, they have a chance to win the division. They’re top three or so in pitching in the league — that’s how you win games.”
The Pirates boast the fourth-lowest ERA in the National League and the fifth-lowest in baseball. Ace pitcher James McDonald has come out of nowhere to become an NL Cy Young candidate, boasting a 9-3 record and 2.37 ERA heading into Friday’s start. Fellow breakout pitcher A.J. Burnett has flashed some of the serious skill he showed in spurts with the New York Yankees.
But according to one member of that improved pitching corps, it’s the change in confidence that has given reason for the Pirates to believe that 2012 won’t end in collapse like so many seasons before it.
“I think the confidence level is a lot higher than it was last year,” pitcher Kevin Correia told reporters Friday. “I think last year we were in it, but I don’t think people were taking it seriously, even ourselves a little bit, not knowing how long this thing was going to last. Now, we feel we’re as good or better than the teams we’re playing right now.”
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is well aware of the increased attention surrounding his team, and the questions of whether they will indeed fade again in the season’s second half. But to him, the attention is only a distraction — something his team needs to avoid as it attempts to hold on to a lead in one of baseball’s most competitive divisions.
“We don’t deal with distractions, and that’s part of the mental toughness chip that we’ve had to add and build upon from last year,” Hurdle said. “That’s what toughness is all about, is eliminating all distractions. We’re getting more attention because we’ve earned it. You earn that through good play, you earn that through winning games. But how do we win games? By keeping it simple. By taking care of us. By each individual taking care of himself first and helping a brother out when he can help a brother out. And that’s what we plan on doing as we move forward.”
The sense of urgency is apparent on both sides of this weekend’s matchup, as the Pirates try to keep their spot at the top, while the Brewers desperately seek to get back into the division race. Milwaukee was eight games behind Pittsburgh to start the second half but plays nine straight games against the three divisional opponents ahead of it in the standings.
This weekend, with the division leaders in town, the Brewers are seeking the same sort of validation the Pirates also seek — despite their spot atop the NL Central. Both teams will likely prove in the coming weeks whether they’re meant to be contenders in 2012.
“This is it right here,” Ramirez said. “If we want to do something with our season, this is it.”
And for the Pirates, the second half of the 2012 season could be their best chance yet to prove that they’ve finally shed their losing tradition.
Pittsburgh is bound to have plenty of doubters going forward. But count Brewers manager Ron Roenicke as one of those who believe the Pirates are indeed for real.
“You’ll see in the second half about (the Pirates) turning a corner, but this is a good team,” Roenicke said. “You can’t be one game out last year in half a season and then be in first place this year in half a season if you’re not a good team.”