Not-Jinxing the Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates really are a good baseball team. There's no harm in believing that, right? Um, right?
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This isn't a jinx. It can't be my fault if the Pirates do the same thing they did in 2011 and 2012. This isn't a jinx because SABR looks at the standings every day and shakes its head and mutters profoundly about Pythagoras and K/9 and OPS. This isn't a jinx because jinxes aren't real.

The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates are a good team. Probably not the best team in baseball. Quite possibly the third-best team in its division. And yet, a playoff-quality team that should get better as the season goes on and once the organizational powers that be recognize that Brandon Inge, for example, could be very readily replaced by half the AAA roster. Mike McKenry would be another example of someone with a worth-a-shot replacement playing in Indianapolis. Travis Snider would be yet another example. Clint Barmes was an example, but no longer is, because he has already been replaced, which gives hope that the other examples will be noted. This isn’t a jinx because Brandon Inge is still on the roster, despite hitting like a relief pitcher with undiagnosed astigmatism.

And yet, all three of those examples are bench players, which, as roster complaints go, is a decent problem to have. Two Pirates position players made the All-Star team and two more reasonably could have. Two pitchers made the All-Star team and two more could have, as well. A fan can easily look at a given day's lineup without gagging or struggling to stifle the urge to curse, which had previously been a serious problem. This isn’t a jinx because Brandon Inge started on the day I wrote this, and I cursed.

And it isn’t like the Pirates have been perfectly lucky or perfectly healthy. The only starter from the Opening Day rotation not to see significant injury time has been fifth-starter-cum-All-Star Jeff Locke, who only made the rotation because Francisco Liriano is Fun Dad. A.J. Burnett, born again as a leadership-minded ace, just recently made his first start in a month. Wandy Rodriguez, last year's stretch gamble and the staff's presumed co-ace, is out for the season. Jeff Karstens is out for the season. James McDonald was awful, then hurt, and is presently being both awful and hurt in Indianapolis. Jonathan Sanchez spent April throwing batting practice in live game situations, which doesn't qualify as an injury but was debilitating and quite possibly a reason for injury in others, and was eventually released. Jeanmar Gomez replaced Sanchez in the rotation and spent much of June on the DL nursing a right forearm injury. Charlie Morton missed most of the first half recovering from Tommy John surgery. Rookie Gerritt Cole left a game after taking a line drive off of his ass, which isn’t really a big deal since he didn’t miss a start, but after 20 years looking up at .500 Pirates fans should be forgiven for any shockwave of oh-shit-here-we-go dread when he was listed as day-to-day the following morning. This is not a jinx because the rotation was already cursed.

The bullpen has been startlingly, amazingly great which is the sort of thing that always feels unsustainable, and mostly is. The answer for this, I've found, is not worrying about good things being unsustainable. This is a technique I’ve imported from my marriage, because “intangibles” are the only thing that would explain my wife still being here. I’m shit on paper, lucky to make the veteran minimum and rapidly losing what little mobility I had; any frank assessment has me well into my decline phase. This isn’t a jinx because, well, we have a son and he’ll make her overlook a lot of flaws in me.

And so here we all are, you and me and Clint Hurdle and the Pirates, at the All-Star break, with the Pirates looking and playing and feeling like a baseball team that should make the playoffs. The recent memories of the last two years' crushing second-half collapses argue against optimism; two decades of failure have made the feeling strange in the extreme. And yet the predominant thought in my mind—and in the minds of the visible Pirates community—isn’t “here we go again.” Pirates fans have been allowing themselves to feel hope and happiness at how the first half of the season went without treating two-game losing streaks as ominous portents. This isn’t a jinx because also, sometimes, we sort of have.

In the short term, it's because—on the day I wrote this, after Pittsburgh's fourth loss in six games, this one against the Cubs—the Pirates outhit the Cubs. And because, even though they’ve lost four of six, they’ve gotten on base more often than their opponent in two of the losses and both of the wins. Losing because of scattering hits harmlessly across limp innings is a 2013 Pirates problem; losing games because you scatter your hits across limp games was a 2012 Pirates problem. This isn’t a jinx because the Pirates have eight wins in which they have scored two or fewer runs, so they aren’t the only team with hard-luck losses, or one heartbreakingly prone to them.

There are warning signs for the second half strewn throughout the preceding; they're there to see, everywhere, and I see them. But these signs they don’t necessarily point to a bad team hiding inside this good one, waiting for the right August day to come out and start skying foul pop-ups and serving up homers. They suggest, instead—as a Pirates fan might want them to, but as a baseball fan would understand—a good team with several flaws and areas of over-performance. They suggest a good team that is getting better as the season unfolds. A good team that is having fun and playing a thrilling brand of baseball. This isn’t a jinx because, even in the slack days of July, there is no time for jinxes. There is baseball to be played, and Pirates games I want to watch.

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