Pittsburgh Pirates more than just a Cinderella

(Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Russell Martin and the Pittsburgh Pirates are a team to be taken seriously.

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ quest for their first winning season in two decades was one of Major League Baseball’s biggest stories of the 2013 season.

Since losing the 1992 NLCS on a famous game-seven slide by Sid Bream, the Pirates had faded from relevance, eventually becoming known as perennial losers. Even when they landed talented prospects, they seemed to wind up on teams that won elsewhere.

In recent years, the Pirates’ more promising starts only led to frustration, as they finished below .500 again and again. But this summer was different: this season, the Bucs stuck around.

To the surprise of almost everyone, the Pittsburgh Pirates even held the best record in baseball as of the last week in June. As they closed in on clinching their first winning season since 1992, they were the talk of baseball–but what followed was even more interesting. When the Pirates finally clinched their long-awaited winning season, their celebration was tempered by ambition as they declared that they weren’t content to simply finish over .500.

Entering the home stretch, the Pirates traded for right fielder Marlon Byrd, who produced from the cleanup spot while strengthening their outfield defense. They acquired John Buck in the same trade, adding a solid backup catcher with right-handed power. Still feeling ambitious, they traded for veteran first baseman Justin Morneau, who solidified the middle of the order and improved their infield defense.

Meanwhile, they continued to pitch well and play as if they believed they belonged in the postseason. Lo and behold, the Pittsburgh Pirates did make the postseason, and now stand on the cusp of their first NLCS since their last winning season. The scrappy underdog that turned its image around has gone from the feel-good tale of the summer to a legitimate threat. They have pitching, defense and dangerous hitters, and they’re battle-tested by a playoff race that went down to the wire. Perhaps just as importantly, they have momentum and the power of belief.

If the Pittsburgh Pirates make it through today’s deciding game against the Cardinals, they’ll prove harder for the Dodgers to dispatch than the streaky, strikeout-prone Atlanta Braves. The Pirates are balanced, talented, battle-tested and hungry, and they’re no longer under anyone’s radar.

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