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Overshadowed by Pens' playoff run, Pirates off to best start since 1991 season

| Sunday, May 26, 2013, 11:45 p.m.

MILWAUKEE — For those who've been too tied up following the Penguins' run in the Stanley Cup playoffs to notice, the Pirates would like to notify you of their status: They're off to their best start since Barry Bonds was patrolling left field in Three Rivers Stadium.

The Pirates are authoring their own compelling story this spring, off to a 31-19 start, their best since 1991. The club has not had a winning season or made the postseason since 1992.

The Pirates have won 14 of their past 19 games to improve to 12 games over .500.

Will the Pirates give Pittsburgh must-see entertainment once the Penguins' season is over? The next four weeks could be telling as the Pirates play 17 of their next 23 games against clubs that are in first place or within a half-game of first place, including four consecutive games against the Tigers beginning at 1:05 p.m. Monday. The Pirates will play two games in Detroit before returning home to host the Tigers in a two-game series beginning on Wednesday.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said that the key for his club to sustain its performance is mental focus.

“We're just trying to make sure we are getting better every day,” Hurdle said. “Eliminate the distractions and control the grind. That's where our focus has been.”

The Pirates could end a two-decade streak of futility thanks to outstanding pitching. The Pirates owned Major League Baseball's second best ERA, 3.22, entering Sunday's games.

Veteran starters A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez have provided the Pirates with consistent performance. Young lefty Jeff Locke has been a pleasant surprise for the club, posting a 2.54 ERA, and free-agent acquisition Francisco Liriano has been outstanding in his first three starts, allowing two runs in 18 innings. Liriano matches up with Detroit ace Justin Verlander on Monday.

Even better than the starting pitching has been the relief pitching. The Pirates are 29-0 when leading after eight innings this season.

Pirates closer Jason Grilli picked up his league-best 20th save on Sunday. Grilli said the Pirates' success has been a team effort, with contributions spread throughout the roster and production not solely concentrated on the stat lines of stars such as Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez.

“We just have to play fundamental baseball, not try to overanalyze it,” Grilli said of the key to sustaining early success. “It's truly been fun. It's been somebody different every day. It's been awesome.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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