Pittsburgh Pirates’ Starling Marte (6), Travis Snider (23) and Andrew McCutchen celebrate a baseball game win over the Milwaukee Brewers, Saturday, May 25, 2013, in Milwaukee. The Pirates won 5-2. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
by Will Graves
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jason Grilli gets it. Really, he does.
The angst. The dread. The perpetual waiting for it to all fall apart. The Pirates closer totally understands why Pittsburgh’s tormented, long-suffering fan base treats every victory with a mix of glee and trepidation.
Even now, in the midst of the team’s best start in a generation, Grilli spends half his time trying to find the right way to be respectful of the constant skepticism and dismissive of it at the same time.
It’s a delicate balance. The major league leader in saves is well aware the Pirates haven’t made the playoffs or even posted a winning record since 1992, a 21-year drought that is simply known in western Pennsylvania as “The Streak.”
Whenever it comes up, though, Grilli responds not with an apology or a hug but a challenge to let it go.
“I tell them, ‘You know what? In 1992 I was a sophomore in high school,’” the 36-year-old right-hander said. “So when people say it, I go, ‘I remember that, I appreciate how you feel. But what’s happening right now? Come to the ballpark. Make some noise. You’ll see.’”
What they’ll see — at least at the moment — is a team intent on finally shedding its underachieving image.
Powered their charismatic, karaoke-belting stopper, a starting rotation putting up eye-popping numbers and an optimistic manager who considers himself equal parts tactician and philosopher, the Pirates headed into Memorial Day weekend as one of the baseball’s biggest surprises.
Pittsburgh entered Friday 28-13 since a 1-5 start, the best mark in majors over that span. Those 41 games mark a quarter of the season, a “sample size” — to borrow one of manager Clint Hurdle’s favorite phrases — large enough that Hurdle believes his team is for real.
“I love the way we’re going about our business,” he said.
He should. After two tantalizing summers under Hurdle turned into September swoons, including a painful tumble from 16 games over .500 on Aug. 8 to a 79-83 finish last fall, Hurdle and his players insist the success they’re enjoying can extend beyond Labor Day.
Not that they want to talk about it. Ask second baseman Neil Walker what makes him confident it won’t all fall apart and the Pittsburgh native lets out a groan.
“I’m not going to address that,” he said, rolling his eyes in faux disgust. “I get it. It’s going to be talked about and addressed but the thing is, we don’t know what’s going to happen. What we do know is every time we go out we feel we’ve got a good chance to win.”
That wasn’t always the case.
Walker endured 99 losses in 2009 and 105 in 2010. He and centerfielder Andrew McCutchen — the cornerstones of the franchise’s rebuilding project — watched the revolving clubhouse door spin round and round for years. The pace, it seems, has finally slowed. The same faces are sticking around, creating the kind of stability that can lead to perhaps the most vital ingredient necessary to become winners: chemistry.
“In the past, we didn’t have that all-in mentality,” Walker said. “I think this year it’s better than I’ve ever seen it.”
The proof lies in his team’s resilience. Pittsburgh’s 14 comeback victories are tied for the most in the majors and the Pirates have reeled off six straight wins in one-run games. The pressure they cracked under last fall has turned into the fire that fuels them.