Pirates still have chance to turn corner

The image of a kneeling Russell Martin holding up a ball-clenched fist will forever be part of the portrait of Pittsburgh Pirates history.

It was Sept. 23, 2013 at the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field. Martin had just tagged out Nate Schierholtz of the Chicago Cubs in the bottom of the ninth inning to cap a 2-1 win that would send the Pirates to the playoffs for the first time in 21 years.

Seconds later, Pirates closer Jason Grilli ran up to his catcher, also got on his knees, and gave Martin a bear hug with a huge smile on his face.

It, too, is an image that will last for many Bucco generations.

It wouldn’t have happened without Starling Marte, though.

In the top half of the ninth, Marte blasted a tie-breaking home run to the left field bleachers. As soon as he dropped the bat, Marte raised his arms in jubilation and let out a powerful fist-pump as he ran down the first-base line.

Pictures of that moment appeared on newspapers, magazines and nationally-recognized websites as a signature sequence of the Pirates magical 2013 season.

Time will tell if the 2014 season can duplicate last year’s stunning season. Recently, Pittsburgh has seen a revival with of its offense, defense and pitching.

It may not have happened without Starling Marte, though.

Entering a May 3 tilt at home against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Pirates were 10-18, losing seven of their last eight games. That Friday seemed to send the season back into a spiral as the Blue Jays scored a run in the top of the first off Gerrit Cole and added three more in his five innings of work.

Toronto led 5-3 going to the bottom of the ninth inning.

Neil Walker led off with a single and Pedro Alvarez plated him with a home run to tie it. Then, it was up to Marte, with two outs, to win it.

He launched a pitch from Sergio Santos into the back of the bullpen.

Marte knew it was gone. He dropped his bat before leaving the box and just stared out towards the batters eye.

This moment hasn’t clinched a playoff berth, but it did spark a turnaround.

Since then, the Pirates are 31-21. That has included two four-game winning streaks and three wins in a row. In June, Pittsburgh has lost just nine times and it has put up a plus-15 run differential this month.

Gregory Polanco has helped that, hitting a blistering .319 with 10 RBIs through 17 games.

Andrew McCutchen has helped that, belting eight home runs and a total of 35 hits this month.

Jordy Mercer has helped that, progressively improving from a .175 batting average after the first month of the season. In June, he’s batting .277 with five home runs.

Josh Harrison has helped that, appearing in all but two games and leading the team with a .423 batting average in the past 25 games.

Marte has helped that, collecting 13 hits in his last 40 at-bats for a .325 batting average over his past 10 games, though he’s been suffering from concussion-like symptoms.

It’s been a collective effort as the team now ranks third in the National League in batting (.257), fourth in on-base plus slugging (.720) and fifth in home runs (73).

Saturday was a struggle, though, as the Pirates left seven runners on base in a 5-3 loss to the New York Mets. They standed three in the fourth inning, alone, and were sent down in order from the end of the fifth inning through the game’s completion.

Hitting has certainly been key for the streaking Bucs, but starting pitching has been the lifeblood.

Pittsburgh has won six of its last eight games and in those contests starters have dazzled with a collective 2.16 earned run average going at least seven innings in all but one appearance – not counting Cole’s recent blunder against the Mets.

Charlie Morton struck out a career-high 11 batters in a 5-1 loss to the Rays, while Edinson Volquez lasted eight innings against Tampa Bay for his longest outing since pitching a complete game on July 19, 2012 as a member of the San Diego Padres.

Vance Worley and Brandon Cumpton have turned their spot-start auditions into full-time roles in the rotation.

The pair combined to allow just three runs in their most recent starts. Since joining the team on June 15, Worley has struck out 15 batters and sports a 1.74 ERA. Cumpton sits at a 4.61 ERA, though that is inflated from a 10-run disaster in Los Angeles. Over 10 games with the Pirates, Cumpton has struck out 32.

Though with Cole back from a stint on the 15-day disabled list and Francisco Liriano set to come off in the next week, the near future is cloudy for these rising stars.

Jeff Locke has been excellent in his most recent starts, as well, but someone will get the boot.

But it’s a good problem to have.

It seems to be the only problem as the Bucs are climbing the Central Division one game at a time.

(Peaslee, a Youngstown native, is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at mpeaslee@heraldstaronline.com and followed on Twitter at @thempeas)