When Clint Hurdle interviewed for a position as Pirates manager last fall, perhaps his most important question to team management was, "Are you all in?"
Months later, the fortunes of the organization have changed drastically, but the fundamental message remains much the same.
The Pirates will begin post-All-Star Game play with a 47-43 record, their best mark since the 1992 season. As Hurdle has told his underdog team, the road will only get tougher in the next three months, when a number of players will experience a pennant race for the first time in their careers.
"We know that it will take all of us," Hurdle said. "We depend on the strength of all of us. They keep asking me, 'What will it take? You've been here before.' I tell them, 'It will take everything that we've got every day and just leave it at that.
"There are two kinds of people in sports and life as well—people who are humble and those who are about to be. We have no room to get too big for our britches. We've just got to continue to keep playing, and we're served best playing one game at a time. Don't think that we don't enjoy to win. But there's a pretty good sense that, when we wake up, that's when the page gets turned."
Here are the hot questions as the season enters the stretch drive:
Is it possible that the Pirates will finish above, uh, um...
Relax, it's OK to say the F-word—Five hundred. Really.
Not only is it possible that the team will reach the .500 mark for the first time in 19 years, but based on their performance thus far, it's likely to happen. At 47-43, the team would have to win only 34 of its final 72 games to break even. Since June 21, the Pirates haven't lost as many as two games in a row, the kind of consistency that hasn't been seen around these parts in awhile.
As team management has said over and over again, the .500 mark isn't the goal itself. But until the team actually wins 81-plus games in a season, the 18 years thing will hang like a millstone around its neck. The current group of players played only a small role in the record streak, and they would just as soon get it over with once and for all.
So, are they legitimate contenders?
By World Series standards, no, history tells us. Eventually, talent wins out in Major League Baseball, and only in rare cases, teams with high payrolls don't host postseason parades.
But by Central Division standards, why not? The Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals rate as the co-favorites on experience alone, but both have flaws. The Brewers have lots of troubles on the road, while the Cardinals' veteran core has had its share of health problems. Both are offensively driven teams that are rather ordinary on the mound and in the field.
It's not unreasonable to think that the Pirates can stay in the division race for awhile and play games that matter in the final month of the season.
Will the front office make a move before the trade deadline?
Team owner Bob Nutting has advised the front office to be aggressive buyers, so expect a move of some kind this month.
Specifically, general manager Neal Huntington and his staff are in the market for an established right-handed power hitter to complement outfielder Andrew McCutchen and second baseman Neil Walker in the middle of the batting order. The list of available impact players is a rather short one, so a blockbuster deal is unlikely to happen. More likely is a trade for a cost-effective veteran who can provide an upgrade in the field and the clubhouse.
The fact that catcher Ryan Doumit, first baseman Steve Pearce, left fielder Jose Tabata and pitchers Evan Meek and Ross Ohlendorf are expected to return from the disabled list shortly makes for a less urgent situation. The team will be able to add veteran talent at no cost, which is the best trade of all.
Can the pitching staff maintain its first-half pace?
This figures to be the make-or-break question before the season runs its course.
Pitching coach Ray Searage has done wonders with the staff thus far, and there's no reason to except a dramatic fall-off in the months ahead. At the same time, among the rotation members, only Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm have started as many as 20 games in one season at the Major League level. It may be a lot to ask of Jeff Karstens, James McDonald and Charlie Morton to pitch effectively every fifth game from here on out.
Closer Joel Hanrahan can't get better than 26 saves in 26 chances. For the most part, he has been able to dominate with one pitch—the fastball. Will the veteran be as effective if he has to rely on his slider more often? Still others want to know how he'll respond in the heat of a playoff race.
Joe Beimel and Ross Ohlendorf are the wild cards here. Due to health issues, the two have combined to pitch only 22 innings this season. If healthy and effective, they'll add a pair of fresh arms to the staff.
Is the offense capable of a greater contribution?
Yes, if for no other reason than the additions of Doumit, Pearce and Tabata will make for more and better options. Also, Alex Presley will be available at the start this time. The rookie outfielder has provided a spark at the top of the batting order since his promotion from the minor leagues.
If one productive long ball hitter is added to the mix, then the offense has the potential to take a step forward in the next three months. It almost has to in order for the team to remain in contention deep into the season.
Who is the X-Factor?
Pedro Alvarez. In the event that an established power hitter cannot be acquired this month, he becomes the obvious candidate to fill the void in the middle of the batting order.
After a solid finish to his rookie season, Alvarez has been a considerable disappointment in his second go-round—36 games, .208 batting average, two home runs. The problem stems from a failure to be aggressive early in the count and an inability to handle pitches on the outer half of the plate. This season, he has had two strikes in the count in 79 of his 138 plate appearances. In those situations, he hits .111 and has struck out 42 times.
After Alvarez was slow to recover from a strained right quadriceps, Hurdle didn't want to see the third baseman again until he was fit mentally and physically. If Alvarez regains his form of last September, when he hit .306 with six home runs, the offense will be that much better because of it.
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Paul Ladewski covers the Pirates for Piratesreport.com and the Ogden Newspapers. Unless otherwise noted, the quotes were obtained first-hand, from industry sources or official Pirates media materials.