VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – It’s hard to feel sorry for Pittsburgh sports fans, given all the Super Bowls, Stanley Cups and World Series titles their pro teams have won over the years.
Pittsburgh even calls itself “The City of Champions”.
Still, though, you would have to be pretty heartless not to feel at least a little bad for Pittsburghers who are die-hard Pirates fans.
The Bucs have logged an almost unbelievable 20 straight losing seasons, not only an MLB record for such futility but also the longest sub-.500 stretch for ANY North American pro team.
You have to go all the way back to 1992 and the days when Barry Bonds had a normal-sized noggin to find the last season the Pirates finished with a winning mark.
Bonds was twice named National League MVP while leading the Buccos to three straight divisional crowns from 1990-92.
But since Barry bolted for San Francisco, it’s been nada in the over-.500 department for the Buccos.
But now, that loooooong dry spell could soon be over. And it could come to an end in a huge way — with a National League Central title, maybe more.
The Pirates currently trail division leader St. Louis by just a half game after spending considerable time in the top spot during the first half of this campaign.
The Bucs are a promising 20 games over .500 at 62-42.
Pittsburgh has done it via the strong young arms of a mostly homegrown pitching staff.
The Pirate hurlers lead the majors in team ERA, allowing just 3.09 runs per contest. They have been hard to hit from the first pitch of a game to its final out.
Bucs starters are No. 1 among MLB clubs in ERA, while their relief corps ranks second.
And first-year closer Jason Grilli is second in the National League in saves with 30.
That, folks, is some kind of mound balance.
The only fly in the ointment could be the Bucs offense. The Pirates rank but 24th in the majors in runs scored.
On a busman’s holiday to scenic PNC Park, hard by The Steel City’s “Golden Triangle”, MAS caught up with the man who has had the most to do with the Buc no-name hurlers developing into the force they currently are — Ray Searage, Pirates pitching coach.
I approached Searage pre-game as he meticulously folded and stacked towels at one end of the Bucs dugout — his hurlers would use them to both bundle up their pitching arms between innings and to dry off with.
Not entrusting anything pitching-related to others, the Sawdust Sam-mustachioed Searage was performing even the most basic of clubhouse attendant duties for his hurlers — making sure the towels were readily available and in plentiful supply.
Searage, in his third full season as Bucs pitching coach, was guarded in his optimism.
“We’re trying to build something bit-by-bit here,” Searage told MAS. “We’re getting there but we’re not done yet.
“We are pleased with our progress. But,” emphasized Ray, “by no means are we satisfied.
What has been the most important advice he has imparted to his kiddie corps?
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Ray said succinctly. “Take it one pitch, one batter and one inning at a time.”
“And bring some swagger —don’t be hesitant, take control of the situation.”
Searage was being careful not to get too heady over the Bucs’ current promising position for good reason.
Ray is all too aware of recent Pirate history.
In each of the past two seasons, Pittsburgh has also seemed on the verge of getting over the .500 hump, only to suffer a monumental collapse.
The Pirates had winning records heading into the last two Augusts, only to then go a combined 37-78 thereafter.
Last season, especially, the Pirates look liked a lead pipe cinch to end their ignominious skein when they were 16 games above .500 with 50 games left.
The Bucs then proceeded to go 15-35 thereafter, finishing 79-83. Close, but no cigar,
Guess what today’s date is?
Said Searage, “This season we hope things will be different — that past failures will help us finally get to where we need to be.
“We’re somewhat confident but not taking anything for granted.”
Part of Ray’s reluctance to proclaim definitively that this is the year the Pirates finally arrive might be due to that relatively paltry run support afforded his hurling charges.
When MAS asked how that affects his pitching staff psychologically, Searage quickly waved off the topic.
“I don’t even know what’s going on outside of what my pitchers are doing,” explained Searage. “I don’t pay attention to what the hitters are doing.
“So I can’t comment on that.”
Spoken like a true team guy and baseball diplomat. Any frustration in that regard, Ray is clearly keeping to himself.
One other thing that could hurt the Pirates is the fact they play in one of, if not THE strongest divisions in MLB.
St. Louis, Cincinnati and the Bucs are currently going at it tooth-and-nail in a tight NL Central race.
Not to aim too low, but the Pirates are shooting for at least one of the two wild card slots. But that may be tough, given so many head-to-head meetings down the stretch with the dangerous Cardinals and Reds, especially given the Bucs offensive struggles.
In the meantime, Searage will be doing everything he can to ensure that Pirate pitching continues to excel — including stacking towels.
All so Pittsburghers can stack a long-awaited World Series trophy atop their mountain of championship hardware.
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