Improved Pirates looking to avoid another meltdown

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PITTSBURGH – Jason Grilli is well aware of the history.


After two promising summers turned into painful falls, the new Pittsburgh Pirates closer realizes what’s at stake in 2013.


“You know, it’s like three strikes and you’re out,” Grilli said. “I don’t think anybody in this clubhouse wants that to happen.”


Not if the group that’s helped raise the Pirates to the edge of contention wants to stick together. Though the organization has insisted it is focused on building continuity within a franchise that has endured a record 20 straight losing seasons, very little beyond this spring seems settled outside of the presence of cornerstone center fielder Andrew McCutchen.


The team extended manager Clint Hurdle through 2014 earlier this spring, though owner Bob Nutting stressed he needs to see the Pirates take another step forward from the 79-83 record they posted a year ago.


“The level of expectation has been and needs to be that we’re going to win a championship,” Nutting said. “We’re going to be playing exciting games throughout the summer as we did last year. We’re going to play meaningful games in September, we’re going to compete for a championship and put ourselves in position for a sixth World Series in Pittsburgh.”


Heady talk for a team that hasn’t even managed a winning season since Barry Bonds left town more than 20 years ago. Yet Nutting’s words are echoed throughout the organization, from Hurdle to general manager Neal Huntington to the core group led by McCutchen and ace A.J. Burnett, who knows a thing or two about what it takes to win.


The 36-year-old is entering the final year of his contract and at $16.5 million a year – a portion of which is still being paid by the New York Yankees – is unlikely to be back. If this is his last ride, he would love nothing more than to help Pittsburgh end what is simply known as “the Streak” and usher in another baseball renaissance at a place that once upon a time was one of the game’s premier – and blue collar – teams.


“Guys are getting tired of hearing that ‘we got better this year, we’re getting better, we’re going in the right direction,”’ said Burnett, who will start opening day after a sterling 16-10 record in 2012. “That’s going to get old after a while … we know it’s time to win.”


Though still somewhat limited by the marketplace, the Pirates did sign three-time All-Star catcher Russell Martin to provide some muscle at the plate and some leadership behind it. They also took a flier on left-handed starter Francisco Liriano, who is still recovering from a freak fall during the offseason in which he broke his right (non-throwing) arm.


The bullpen underwent a makeover when Pittsburgh shipped two-time All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan to Boston rather than give him a hefty raise in arbitration. The trade thrust the closer’s role into the hands of the 36-year-old Grilli, a journeyman who has flourished since the Pirates plucked him out of the minors and made him a setup man.


The outspoken veteran brushes off talk the Pirates are cursed, that Pittsburgh is relegated to also-ran status for perpetuity. He understands what it’s like to be written off. He totally gets the frustration that comes when a team soars to 16 games above .500 – as the Pirates did last summer – only to plummet in the season’s final six weeks.


He’s just not convinced it means Pittsburgh is doomed once again.


“We had to endure that, and it wasn’t fun,” Grilli said. “There’s nobody that wants to win out there more than we do. People who don’t think we have the pieces are going to be surprised.”


The lineup is an interesting mix of promise and question marks. McCutchen enjoyed a breakout season in 2012, finishing third in the National League MVP race after hitting .327 with 31 homers and 96 RBIs. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez finally corralled his considerable power to hit 30 home runs. First baseman Garrett Jones hit 27 homers of his own.


They’ll be joined by second-year outfielder Starling Marte, a raw talent who could become the dangerous leadoff hitter Pittsburgh desperately needs. Shortstop Clint Barmes provided a steadying presence on defense but hit just .229. Outfielder Travis Snider and first baseman Gaby Sanchez – acquired in trade deadline deals last summer – believe their anemic play last fall was simply an anomaly.


For the Pirates to break the stranglehold the Brewers, Cardinals and Reds have on the NL Central, it will likely have to be.


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