PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Pirates are back, but don’t take my word for it, even if I am one of the few who are left from the early 1990s when they dominated the National League East with three consecutive championships.
In those days I covered the Pirates for the Pittsburgh Press, which expired in ’93, the same season their run as a winning ball team expired.
Someone else, though, was there in those days and he has a far better handle what it takes to win in Pittsburgh.
His name is Jim Leyland and he is the last man to manage a Pirates team to finish above .500.
And that was in 1992.
“I didn’t think it would be this long, to be honest with you,” Leyland said on Thursday as his Detroit Tigers wrapped up a quick two-game series in the Burgh. “Everyone knows the story behind me leaving. I knew they were tearing it down and I wasn’t the guy to wait around to rebuild a team.”
Not for 20 years … two decades.
Instead, he went to Miami and won a World Series. He went to Colorado and didn’t … then waited around and watched his son Patrick grow before the best opportunity he ever had came along in Detroit.
That was him managing in the World Series last year.
Now Leyland believes the Pirates are back, their 33-20 record good enough to lead five of the six divisions in major league baseball, the only one it not being good enough to lead is the division in which they play where they must deal with St. Louis and Cincinnati.
“They’re very legitimate,” Leyland said of the team he used to run. “They have one of the best bullpens we’ve seen. Starling Marte is key for them. If he’s really good, him and (Andrew) McCutchen give them speed and nice balance in their lineup.”
Marte, a rookie, has been batting better than .300 and leading the league in hits all season until a recent slump dragged him down to .296. Still, his numbers out of the leadoff spot are very comparable to McCutchen’s … .296 to .289, 36 runs scored to 35, 61 hits to 57, five home runs to seven and each with 14 stolen bases.
If McCutchen is a star, so, too, is Marte … much like Leyland had back in his heyday with Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, although they were different types of players.
Leyland also sees the Pirates’ third baseman Pedro Alvarez as a key, although there are many who wonder if he is ever going to live up to being the No. 1 selection of the Pirates (No. 2 overall) in the 2008 draft.
He is batting only .200 at present and has but 32 hits to go with 59 strikeouts. But there were 30 home runs last season, his first year of 100 games played, and 10 already this season, some of them eye-popping in their distance.
“I like him,” Leyland said. “He’s a treat and he looks like he’s going to become a good hitter. He’s in shape now and he looks like he’s playing better third base. He has big time power.”
In truth, Leyland sees a lot on the Pirates that he likes.
“They have a combination of a lot of things. They have the two best left-handers we’ve seen in the bullpen in [Tony] Watson and [Justin] Wilson. They are very legitimate, but it’s a matter of how their starting pitching holds up,” he said.
That, of course, is no different than any other team in the major leagues.
To date the starting pitching of A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke, Wandy Rodriguez, Jeanmar Gomez and Francisco Liriano has been solid, compiling a 19-9 record with Burnett, Locke, Gomez and Liriano each with an ERA of 2.72 or better.
Does it compare with Leyland’s championship teams?
Not yet? While Russell Martin has given them a catcher who can match the platoon between Mike LaValliere and Don Slaught, Jay Bell looms large at shortstop, the outfield of Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and Bonilla was among the best ever in Pittsburgh and a starting rotation of Doug Drabek, a Cy Young winner, Zane Smith, John Smiley, Randy Tomlin and Bob Walk were all at their prime.
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