They say that the beginning of June is the time to really start evaluating baseball teams. One-third of the way into the season, you should be able to paint a fairly accurate image of what the team is and whether it can make any noise over the rest of the season. Because of one man in particular, the Pirates are in a position to make some noise this year in ways other than feeding the playoff contenders with missing pieces on the field.
Let’s flash back to 2010 to start this story, when the Pirates staff wasn’t just bad, it was historically bad. They finished dead last in the MLB with a 5.00 ERA, compiled a measly 57 wins, had only 71 quality starts (which wasn’t last, only next to last!), and allowed opposing teams to hit .282 against them. Over the course the entire 162 game season, the team only got one complete game from a starter. The team’s staff was also near the bottom of the league in strikeouts, walks and shutouts. Individually, it was very ugly for some players. Charlie Morton took an ERA over 10.00 into September. Hayden Penn, a supposed solid free agent signing, gave up eight runs in all of 2.1 IP and was released on July 23rd. The most solid player on the staff was James McDonald, and he only spent two months on the team after being acquired for Octavio Dotel at the trade deadline (a deal that could end up as the biggest steal in Pirates history).
Exit manager John Russel and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, and enter Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage. Under the guidance of these two, the pitching staff that is mostly intact from last season has done a complete 180. Through Friday, they’re ranked in the top 10 in ERA (3.54) and complete games (4), and are in the top half of the league in complete games and quality starts. Opponents are hitting only .253 against them, and prior to Thursday’s game the teams starters went 12 straight games allowing two earned runs or less in at least five innings of work.
Morton, in particular, has been an aberration beyond anything words can explain. Through Friday, he’s 5-2 through 10 games. His 2.51 ERA is fourth best in the NL right now, ahead of names like Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum. Suddenly, under Searage, he’s pitching with confidence that he can control the game and win. He’s keeping his pitches down in the strike zone and, in turn, is baffling opposing hitters. After a slow start, McDonald has lived up the the hype that made him a top prospect with the Dodgers, and Maholm has pitched as well as anybody in the league. Free agent addition Kevin Correia leads the majors with eight wins. It’s the first time in recent memory that the Pirates can expect to win when their pitchers take the mound.
What makes the sudden turn around so remarkable is that the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff is nearly identical to the 2010 version. With the exception of Correia, the rotation of Paul Maholm, Morton, McDonald, and Jeff Karstens combined to start 91 games in 2010. Sure, after 2010 these players had no where to go but up, but I’m not sure anyone could have predicted the historic turn around that has taken place so far. By my estimation, one of three things has happened: Hurdle is hiding the fountain of youth at his house, Kenny Geidel’s spirit (the recently deceased “lemonade guy”) is carrying the team in a fashion similar to “Angels in the Outfield” or Searage really has been that good.
I’ll go with Searage having been that good. The best part about it all is, that even of one pitcher falls off, it won’t affect the team as much as it might have in the past. I honestly feel that Correia is the most likely to be the one to drop-off — he’s an established veteran, and at this point in his career we know what to expect from him. Moreover, he’s been known to have mid-season drop-offs in the past. Unless he pulls a Cliff Lee and turns out to be a late bloomer (a highly unlikely proposition), he’ll come back down to earth. And even if he does, the Pirates can still confidently put Morton, Maholm and McDonald on the mound. Remember Houston’s Killer B’s? Maybe the Pirates have stumbled upon the Amazing M’s. No matter the name, though, under the direction of Searage, the staff appears to be primed to continue puzzling opposing hitters and giving the team a chance to win night in and night out. That something Pirates fans have been waiting two decades for, and Ray Searage, who has been in the organization for almost half of that time, might just be the man to deliver it.