The 2011 Pirates have stuck together so far.
It has been a long time since the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans could say the team was closer to the top of the NL Central Division standings then it was to the bottom. But here we are.
After 81 games heading in to July 2nd, the Buccos are 41-40 and are currently 3.0 games back of the division lead. This is a lot to take in for fans. Especially those who remember the last winning season, 1992.
While it would be foolish to plunk money down on 2011 Central Division Championship merchandise, there are plenty of reasons to stay interested the rest of the way for casual fans or those new to the Pirates.
Obviously, it would be great to finish the season above the .500 mark, but there is so much more to it than that.
The future looks bright in terms of pitchers that will either be added to the team down the line or used to trade for additional players. Gerrit Cole, Jameson Tallion, Stetson Allie and young Luis Heredia are among the arms in the system.
While position players look light, you never know who will catch lightning in a bottle. Remember, this current team's front office was ready to run Neil Walker out of town and grudgingly gave him a shot at second base, his third position.
But for the first time in long while, it is not just about the future or thinking of next year. There are reasons to care about the Pittsburgh Pirates right now! Let's look at 10 of them...and for the die-hards I will spoil the list for you. PNC Park is not any of the 10 slides!
To start the list, let's just say it: .500 baseball. If you are not a Pirates fan, you cannot even begin to understand what that number means.
It has been great to see the team play near or above .500 consistently this season. There have been some giant crowds at PNC Park. Even though those are assisted by opposing fans, there is a growing sense of awareness and, dare I say, "interest" in the Pirates and what they are doing.
The best way I can illustrate this is a trip I made to the mall two weeks ago. I walked into a nationwide sports retailer and was startled to see a Neil Walker t-shirt and Pirates caps on display prominently in the front of the store as I entered.
It truly has been that long. One thing is important to remember, though. While it would be great to make it to .500 at the end of the season, there is a long-term goal that is more important.
Even if this 2011 edition comes up short, come back next season. There are some signs that this is not going to be a fluke.
The non-waiver trade deadline for Major League Baseball is 4pm Sunday, July 31st this season. This date will likely come and go without much, if any activity from the Pirates.
That is a good thing. It is time for management to commit to a core of players and see it through. They appear to be doing that, and guys like Paul Maholm could benefit from it.
In years past, there would be no question that Maholm and his $9.75 million club option would be dealt at the deadline. With the team hanging around semi-contention, the answer is not very clear.
He still could be dealt, but it is not going to be a move of desperation to dump salary. If you have followed the Pirates for any length of time, you know how good that feels.
Jose Tabata on the cart
In the next month or so, injured players such as Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez should return to the lineup. While neither was matching his 2010 numbers at the time of injury, each plays a very key role in the future of the Pirates.
Tabata is a speedy outfielder who can hit for average and steal bases. The kid plays a good left field, too. When he went down with a quad injury June 26th against the Boston Red Sox, a hush fell over PNC Park. Luckily, it does not appear to be overly serious.
Alvarez is projected as a big stick in the middle of the lineup for many years to come. If he can manage his strikeouts and weight, he should be able to get back to the thrilling hitter he was toward the end of last season.
Catchers Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder appear to be injured more long-term, so unfortunately they will likely not be of much help to the squad aside from some advice here and there.
Chase d'Arnaud and Alex Presley
If you have been watching games the past month, it is very likely that, upon hearing the lineup, you said, "Who?" at least once. Injuries and lack of depth have created some interesting lineup cards turned in by manager Clint Hurdle.
Currently, the team's catchers are Eric Fryer and Michael McKenry. If you don't know where either came from, do not feel bad. Also seeing time at the position previously were Wyatt Toregas and Dusty Brown.
Josh Harrison has seen time at third base. He is a speedy player without much power, but can really do some damage on the basepaths.
Chase d'Arnaud has spent some time at third as well, and will also see time at shortstop as Ronny Cedeno heads to the seven-day DL for a concussion.
One of the more intriguing of the new names has been Xavier Paul. He sees time in the outfield and will often enter the games that Garret Jones starts as a defensive replacement if the team has a lead late.
As the season progresses and additional injuries take place, there will be more no-names that pop up. You never know who will catch on.
Recently, Alex Presley was called up to get some time DH-ing in Toronto. He hit his first HR up there and may likely stick around with the team to get a longer look.
Skipper Clint Hurdle
Manager Clint Hurdle has had a positive impact on this team. From day one he exhibited confidence and swagger.
So far he has backed it up with 41 wins despite not being a "by the book" guy. Some of his decisions can appear rash because of that.
The important thing is that his players clearly believe in him. Any team will play a stinker over the course of a 162-game schedule. So far the Buccos have not had too many of them.
For my money, a manager that does not always play percentages is much more exciting and valuable than one who does. There will be times in a season where looking a player in the eye and showing him that you have the confidence in him to let him win or lose a game will reap more rewards than a chart ever will.
An area of concern coming into the season was the middle relief. Namely, who on earth was going to fill the positions and could they do it competently?
There have been some rocky moments for sure, but overall the team's bullpen has not been a disaster. Yes, I know that is very damning praise, but remember this franchise has not had a winning season in 18 years. Disaster lurks behind every corner.
At any rate, guys like Chris Resop, Daniel McCutchen and Jose Veras have seen consistent work in setup situations and tough spots. While they have not always gotten the job done, they are learning on the job and recently both are showing a bit more in terms of performance.
Add to that the emergence of youngsters Tony Watson and Daniel Moskos and the patchwork bullpen might create some heart palpitations, both good and bad.
If the bullpen was a concern coming into the season, you can bet that the starting pitching was always giving fans some sleepless nights. After all, if your starters fail, the bullpen becomes even more important.
To date, the Pirates starting pitching has been incredible. If that comes off as hyperbole, consider the following rotation: Kevin Correia, James McDonald, Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens.
Correia has a 3.79 ERA and a 10-6 record and 1.23 WHIP.
McDonald has a 4.52 ERA and a 5-4 record with 67 K's.
Maholm has been the "tough luck" pitcher of the staff. His 4-9 record does not tell the full story. A 3.17 ERA, 64 K's and 1.21 WHIP paint a better pitcher of a guy who just has not had much run support in his outings.
Morton recently skipped a start, but he is still considered back from the scrap heap of baseball after his disastrous 2010 season. A 7-4 record and 3.63 ERA are welcome sights for Pirates fans, and for Morton himself.
As of July 2nd, Karstens ranked sixth in the National League with a 2.65 ERA. He also has a 6-4 record and a 1.08 WHIP!
As you can see, with this group the "incredible" tag might just fit after all. Give pitching coach Ray Searage a lot of credit here.
No surprise has been more pleasant than the performance of closer Joel Hanrahan during the 2011 season. When he comes out of the bullpen, the scoreboard lights up with highlights and some racing-themed visuals as Slipknot's "Before I Forget" blares out of the speakers.
The real excitement comes when Hanrahan hits the mound. "Hammer Time" as it is called, has not disappointed, not failing on a save opportunity to date this season.
Opponents hit .204 off of him and his 0.94 WHIP and 1.21 ERA are a testament to him locking the closer role down for many seasons to come.
If you are from Pittsburgh or a Pirates fan and do not like Neil Walker, there is probably something wrong with you. Seriously.
He is a local kid, who grew up in Pine Richland. Even his own front office pretty much gave up on him after drafting him as a catcher, moving him to third base and then reluctantly giving him a chance at second base.
Nobody is giving up on Walker now. Even though his numbers are down this season, with the lack of hitting throughout the entire team it can certainly not be pinned solely on his shoulders.
Look for "The Pittsburgh Kid" to have a strong second half. If there is any player on this team that knows what it would mean to finish .500, it is Walker. He wears No. 18 because of Andy Van Slyke, a player that he grew up watching, you know...back when the Pirates were winning.
When compiling this list, I made a conscious decision to leave PNC Park off of it. The reason is because for too many years, that is all that true baseball fans have heard locals talk about. "It's the crown jewel" of the North Side.
Not anymore. The new "crown jewel" of the Pirates is Andrew McCutchen. If you have not gotten the chance to watch him play I suggest that you do so.
Being a Pirates fan and resident of Pittsburgh, a friend of mine and I made the drive to see him and Neil Walker when they were with the AA Altoona Curve. Even then, his defense, speed and ability to track down fly balls were impressive.
Nothing has changed at the major league level. McCutchen alone is worth the price of admission, or a few hours on television if you are not as fortunate as me to live nearby.
At some point, the Pirates will lock up McCutchen to a long-term contract. Hopefully it will cut into his free-agent years and prove once and for all that this team is up to the challenge of winning and putting its money where its mouth is.