PITTSBURGH — Rich Hill does not pretend to be clairvoyant. And he doesn’t call the psychic hotline.
However, the Pittsburgh Pirates left-hander has been around professional baseball for a long time. The oldest player in the major leagues at 43, Hill broke into the big leagues in 2005.
Hill has seen a whole lot of ball. It has given him a feel for the game that not many possess.
So, while the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 16-7 record is making them the talk of baseball during the first month of the season, Hill insists he is not surprised. He even said that with a straight face.
Hill might be the only person not surprised that the Pirates are nine games over .500 just 23 games into the season after losing 101 games in 2021 and 100 in 2022. Oh, and they’ve finished last in the National League Central =in four straight seasons.
“If you look at the starting rotation, look at our bullpen … guys are being asked to step up in different roles in different positions and they’re accepting that challenge,” Hill said. “With the last couple of years of getting that experience under their belt, they’re using that as a reference point to where we are right now. You can see that the talent is in the room. It’s just a matter of that belief.
That belief is building by the day.
The Pirates will take a seven-game winning streak into Tuesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers that opens a three-game series at PNC Park. The Pirates have the second-best record in the major leagues behind only the Tampa Bay Rays (20-3).
There has not been one area in which the Pirates have been overwhelming. However, they are eighth in MLB with a 3.63 ERA and 10th with an average of 4.83 runs scored a game.
The Pirates are also winning despite losing two key players to major injuries. Shortstop and leadoff hitter Oneil Cruz is out until at least August after breaking his left ankle on April 9 and right-hander JT Brubaker will miss the entire season after injuring his elbow late in spring training and requiring Tommy John reconstructive surgery.
The Pirates spent the winter adding such veterans as Hill, outfielder Andrew McCutchen, first baseman Carlos Santana and catcher Austin Hedges in free agency. General manager Ben Cherington’s plan was to both bolster the roster and add some veteran presence to the clubhouse.
Through 25 games, it’s hard to imagine that plan working out any better.
“The guys that we acquired, the veteran guys, they’ve done a really good job in our clubhouse of taking care of certain things that need to be taken care of, having conversations that need to be had, and they’ve all done a really nice job on the field,” manager Derek Shelton said. “It’s important to be able to keep them on the field but, specifically, the presence of having Rich in our rotation is calming. You know what you’re going to get, you know how he’s going to execute. Having Cutch and Santana in your lineup is calming because they have professional at-bats all the time.
“I think the one thing where it really stands out is you don’t have to hit the kids at the top as much as we had to before. Last year, we had to because of what our roster was, we had to put them in the two, three, four spots at times. Now, we’re able to put those guys in and then we can supplement if we have to. We may put one of the kids in there, but it’s between Cutch and Santana. Or you’re able to maybe go one day with that where it was five or six days before. So, I think being able to do that, that sense of calm is very helpful.”
Of course, no major professional sport has a longer season than the MLB’s grueling 162-game schedule. The Pirates still have 139 games left and a lot of stuff can happen between now and Oct. 1 – both good and bad.
Many fans are still skeptical of the Pirates’ early-season success and rightfully so. This is one of the most frugal franchises in sports and the Pirates haven’t won a division title since 1992 or a playoff series since beating the Baltimore Orioles in the 1979 World Series.
So, what would Shelton tell a skeptical fan?
“We’re continuing to get better, and I think that’s the important thing, and I think that’s the one thing I’ve learned about our fans in the conversations over the last three years is they want us to get better and they want to see how and why we’re getting better,” Shelton said. “If you’ve watched us play through (25) games, we’re getting better. We’re doing little things, we’re doing things that we didn’t do last year. We’re winning games that we would not have won last year, and I think that’s the important thing.
“I think fans are starting to embrace the fact that there is a process that has been put in place. We are sticking to the process. Sometimes, they may not agree with the process, because it’s challenging, but the fact that we’re getting better every day, I think that’s something they can really stand up and hold on to.”
Where the Pirates are standing come September remains to be seen.
However, they have at least given their fans a reason to dream of potentially important late-season games. That’s a start back to respectability.