Kovacevic: These aren't Jerry Meals' Pirates
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This Fourth of July marks the halfway point of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club's season, an occasion I've usually used to produce a list of highs and lows, hits and misses, that kind of stuff.
Not this time.
Certainly not after this special Tuesday night at PNC Park.
This team is touching peaks not seen in two decades, touching hearts that long ago gave up on baseball in these parts. It doesn't deserve the digging up of negatives. It's been too good, too resilient.
And yes, this is different.
This team is about James McDonald's cool, not another Jerry Meals collapse.
It's about Pedro Alvarez limping to the plate and lashing a huge pinch-hit.
It's about Garrett Jones slugging deep into the Downtown night for the lead.
It's about Drew Sutton, a minor-league journeyman twice disposed this year alone, crushing a hanging slider to walk off a hero. His eyes would well up later when he described "one of those baseball moments" that makes all the 14-hour bus rides worth it.
It's about Pirates 8, Astros 7.
It's about being eight games over .500 for the first time in - say it with me - 20 years.
It's about the pitching, the sharpest and deepest we've seen since Doug Drabek, John Smiley, Zane Smith, Randy Tomlin and Bob Walk in 1991. All to Neal Huntington's credit.
It's about A.J. Burnett, the pitcher and the person. If not for that 12-run beating he absorbed May 2 to help spare the bullpen, his ERA would be 2.46, even with this hiccup.
It's about Clint Hurdle's gem of a quote before the game about why Burnett has taken to Pittsburgh: "He's loved now. Norm used to like it when he walked into Cheers, too."
It's about Andrew McCutchen, the team's MVP and, as of those three hits Tuesday, the National League leader with a .360 average.
Those chants don't seem far-fetched.
It's about spirit, too.
It's about Sutton getting Gatoraded by Casey McGehee and pied by Burnett after that ball landed 407 feet away. But it's also, as Sutton noted, about how the Pirates lose.
"First thing I noticed," he said. "Nobody gets down. They just move on. I've been on winners. That's what it's like."
It's about that row of elderly women doing the Zoltan in the PNC Park crowd.
It's about Josh Harrison twice earning the respect of the brilliant Justin Verlander, first breaking up a no-hitter in Detroit, then nearly homering off him at PNC. The latter brought a slight nod from the mound.
"It's like he wanted me to know he saw me," Harrison recalled. "I'll never forget it."
It's about staying up late to see how the Reds fare on the West Coast.
It's about demoting Jose Tabata.
Know that Tabata's coaches and teammates didn't appreciate watching that bloop fall in front of him Saturday in St. Louis, as Jeff Karstens was sweating out 105 degrees. There was no dive, not even a lunge.
Winning teams don't tolerate losing effort. This reaction was slow, but it came.
It's about a support system. Dean Treanor, Indianapolis' leather-tough manager, plans to do all the talking with Tabata upon his arrival Wednesday afternoon.
"Jose's going to hear this: I won't accept less than his best," Treanor said by phone.
It's about Starling Marte, Treanor's prized pupil, essentially on his way to Pittsburgh. Probably after the All-Star break.
You will love this kid. Soon.
It's about Ray Searage.
And yeah, it's about Gregg Ritchie. A lot of folks - myself included, right here in this space - wondered how a hitting coach stayed employed through the historically awful offense we saw in April and May. The answer has come again and again since then.
It's about their boss. It's Hurdle casually saying stuff like, "Our goal is to re-bond this team with this city." And meaning it.
Above all, though, this 2012 season might end up having pivoted off a single pitch.
You know which one. Eight days ago in Philadelphia. Brad Lincoln vs. Jim Thome. The Pirates' big lead was down to 8-7 in the seventh, two men on, two outs, 0-2 count.
The Same Old Pirates crumble there, sadly, meekly. But Lincoln reared back and rifled 95-mph heat through Thome's huge cut.
It's about that pitch.
"Oh, I don't know about that," Lincoln said Tuesday. "But I know it was a big moment. That's why I got really emotional."
Yeah, there was that, too. Lincoln gestured slightly into a flexing pose toward Thome, one he still insists "wasn't aimed at him." The two had a brief staredown.
But if anyone got offended, no one on the Pirates' side sounds ready to apologize.
"You know, we should really be past that," Lincoln said. "Look at us. We pitch, we play defense, we're hitting now. We're here, man. We're not going away."
Not this time.
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