PITTSBURGH – The logical part of the baseball brain says not to get too excited.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are just seven games into the season. They have 155 games left.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint, just in case you’ve never heard that expression before.
Yet the Pirates are 5-2 after outlasting the Chicago White Sox 13-9 on Friday in their home opener on Friday at PNC Park. Just three teams in the major leagues have a better record: the Tampa Bay Rays (7-0), Milwaukee Brewers (6-1) and Atlanta Braves (6-2).
Yet while my baseball instincts tell me it’s far too early to get excited about the Pirates, my gut instincts tell me something different. I truly believe there is reason to think the Pirates might be better than anyone expected when the season began just nine days ago.
That feeling started developing during my two trips to Bradenton for the first and last weeks of spring training. There was a different feel in the clubhouse and a different vibe around the team.
Following the offseason additions of such veterans as Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Santana, Austin Hedges and Rich Hill among others, there was a sense of legitimacy.
The Pirates no longer had a roster filled with players who had no business even being in the major leagues. They had real big-league players or promising prospects at every position.
Of course, spring training can also be a time to get fooled. Optimism is always running high in February and March before the reality of the regular season begins to hit when the losses pile up in April and May.
However, the losses aren’t piling up, at least not yet. And the Pirates are playing with the confidence of something more than a team having a fluky good seven-game stretch.
The Pirates are 12th in the major leagues in batting average (.253) and OPS (.770), thanks in large part to Bryan Reynolds’ five home runs. They were 29th and 28th in those categories last season when they hit a measly .222.
“There is so much resiliency here in this locker room and I think the group of guys that everybody has been able to see these first couple of games here in the beginning part of the season has shown a lot of that,” said Hill, the 43-year-old left-hander who is the oldest player in the major leagues.
“The continued effort by great at-bats and the approaches that are coming in are awesome to see. Those guys continue to keep swinging and put the ball in play.”
The pitching has been solid, too, as the Pirates’ 4.28 ERA ranks 14th in MLB. They were 26th last year with a 4.66 mark.
Put it all together and the Pirates are a watchable team after going 142-242 in the first three seasons under general manager Ben Cherington and manager Derek Shelton.
Shelton believes the tone was set March 30 when the Pirates beat the Reds 5-4 at Cincinnati to open the season. The Reds loaded the bases with no outs in the first inning against Mitch Keller but scored only one run.
“That dynamic has really jelled the last 10 days,” Shelton said. “In spring training, you have so many people around it’s hard for groups to grow together. You would see it grow in factions, but I think once we got that core group together the last three or four days of spring training, you started to feel it.
Then it really came that first inning in Cincinnati. I think it’s a credit to our veteran guys. We have one guy in each area. We’ve added Carlos, who’s in the infield; Cutch is in the outfield; Hill with the pitching group and Hedgie everywhere around.
“I think you start to see those factions kind of blend together and the energy that those veteran guys have and it’s more – I shouldn’t even say energy – the calmness that they have about them,” Shelton continued. “You watch the way they go about their day. You watch the lack of panic when something goes bad. That really resonates with young players.”
How long this continues to last remains to be seen. I have a sneaking suspicion this could be a more fun year than anyone has a right to expect.