The Pittsburgh Pirates are used to this part, the one where they spend the first half of the season stunning the baseball world with their play. Call it a byproduct of two decades of mediocrity.
Yet promising starts in 2011 and 2012 ended up in an all too familiar place, with the team under .500 after cratering under the pressure of a pennant race.
The freefalls were painful, yet closer Jason Grilli insists they were an important part of the growth process for a franchise learning how to win. Still, even the perpetually optimistic Grilli knows a third disappearing act is unacceptable.
“The time’s now,” Grilli said. “There’s no more development. It’s time to win.”
It’s a message echoed from all corners of the clubhouse, from veterans like the 36-year-old Grilli to 25-year-old revelation Jeff Locke to star center fielder Andrew McCutchen to perpetually optimistic manager Clint Hurdle. All understand the club’s best record at the All-Star break (56-37) in 37 years will be rendered a tantalizing footnote if Lucy pulls the football away from Charlie Brown one more time.
“Nobody out there is satisfied,” Hurdle said last week. “I know I’m not satisfied.”
What the Pirates are, they insist, are confident yet wary.
They begin the second half of the season in Cincinnati tonight eager to show they’re not ready to become the 2013 version of Icarus, the character from Greek mythology who tried to escape the island of Crete by constructing wings made of feather and wax.
Icarus nearly made it, but disregarded his father’s order to not fly too close to the sun. The wax melted under the heat, and Icarus came plummeting back to earth.
Pittsburgh has no such plans to do the same, and there’s a different vibe pulsating through the dugout this summer. The only place Pittsburgh’s play isn’t a surprise is in the Pirates’ dugout. It’s why Grilli didn’t get too worked up when “Sports Illustrated” put the fiery, emotional leader on the cover this week, the first time a Pirate has made the front page of the magazine since Barry Bonds did it 21 years ago.
“These are things that you can really get caught up in and I’m not that guy,” Grilli said. “I’m here and I’m doing well because my teammates are succeeding too and they’re helping me be successful.”
And doing it in a grown-up way.
The youthful “Zoltan” signs the team used as a touchstone last year — a tongue-in-cheek nod to the slacker comedy “Dude Where’s My Car?” — now only pop up occasionally. And while Grilli has nicknamed the bullpen “The Shark Tank” because of its tenacity (a moniker that has caught on so well a fan donated an actual shark tank that now sits a few steps from Grilli’s locker) the Pirates are playing with a maturity it lacked even a year ago.
Around the leagues
The Kansas City Royals placed infielder Chris Getz and reliever Kelvin Herrera on the taxi squad Thursday in anticipation of recalling them today, and optioned infielder Johnny Giavotella and reliever Everett Teaford to Triple-A Omaha. The club also assigned infielder Pedro Ciriaco, claimed off waivers Tuesday from San Diego, to Omaha. … The Texas Rangers released left-hander Brad Mills from his minor-league contract so that he could sign to play in Japan.