Surging Pirates trying to enjoy the ride

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Grilli can’t help but laugh as he talks about it, maybe because the idea of a bullpen led by a journeyman reliever is kind of preposterous. The well-traveled pitcher was handed the closing job for the first time in his career over the winter when the Pirates decided to trade two-time All-Star Joel Hanrahan to Boston rather than give him the hefty raise he was due in salary arbitration.

While Hanrahan struggled early for the Red Sox before an elbow injury shelved him for the year, Grilli has become automatic. He is 19 for 19 in save opportunities, each one celebrated with a roar and a fistpump as his slicked-back shoulder-length hair bounces under his baseball cap.

In a way, Grilli and Burnett — he of the National League-leading 79 strikeouts, arms full of tattoos and mischievous grin — are a perfect antidote to the persistent cloud “The Streak” casts over the franchise, if not the players in uniform.

If Grilli isn’t leading clubhouse lingerers like Melancon and catcher Russell Martin in some postgame karaoke — “Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi is Grilli’s go-to song — then Burnett is taking rehabbing starting pitcher Jeff Karstens outside in the lazy hours before batting practice starts and racing remote control cars across the PNC Park outfield.

There’s a hockey goal, complete with sticks and a couple of plastic balls, around in case things get too slow. Peek into Grilli’s locker and you’ll find a life-sized Chewbacca costume sitting in there because, well, he thought it looked like fun.

“We play a kids game,” Grilli said. “If you lose sight of that, you’re in trouble.”

It happened over the season’s final six weeks in 2012 when Pittsburgh crumbled in the midst of a pennant race. The weight of “The Streak” appeared to become too much. The giddy fraternity house atmosphere disappeared in September as the losses mounted and frustration set in.

“It got to a point where we were kind not knowing good things would happen but kind of hoping for things to happen,” shortstop Clint Barmes said. “Then it started to snowball and then it got to the point that it was too much tension in here. It wasn’t fun.”

A mistake the Pirates vow they won’t make again. Maybe that’s why utility infielder Brandon Inge decided to dress up in full hockey gear — helmet, shoulder pads and roller blades included — and skate around the clubhouse before a 4-2 win over Chicago on Thursday. Several players then donned Penguin jerseys before flying to Milwaukee for a weekend series with the Brewers.

The Penguins, a favorite to win the Stanley Cup, noticed. Forward Matt Cooke plans to repay the favor in September.

“We’ll be wearing the Pirate jerseys,” he said with a laugh.

Consider Cooke a believer. Not everyone is. The average attendance of 20,504 is lagging behind last year’s pace, though some unpredictable weather and several series against also-rans hasn’t helped.

The Pirates don’t mind if others take their time before buying in.

They’re well aware the doubters will only get louder, waiting for the collapse, if the hot start extends into the summer and beyond. The last 21 years have provided the cynics plenty of fodder. Grilli’s response? So what.

“Everybody is trying to pin this losing history on us,” Grilli said. “We weren’t here for it. We just know we’re playing two months of solid baseball right now. Now we have to do that two more times and if we do that, we know where we’re going to be.”

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Follow Will Graves at http://www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP

 

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