Pirates riding the Power of "Z" to first place
By WILL GRAVES
PITTSBURGH (AP) Forget about Andrew McCutchen's MVP-caliber season. Or the emergence of ace-in-training James McDonald. Or the calming presence of playoff-tested veterans A.J. Burnett and Rod Barajas.
Want to know the Pittsburgh Pirates' secret behind their rise to first in the National League Central?
It's all about the Zoltan.
It started the way most of these things start, in a bored clubhouse in the meandering hours before first pitch. A group of players were watching the 2000 movie "Dude, Where's My Car?" - considered the "Citizen Kane" of "pair of slackers lose car/hi-jinks ensue" comedies - before a game in Atlanta in April when second baseman Neil Walker started goofing off by making a "Z" symbol.
The sign - left hand facing out, thumb down, right hand facing in, thumb up - is a tribute to the character Zoltan, an alien whose followers wear bubble wrap jump suits.
Walker started flashing it whenever the Pirates made an impact play. It really took off, however, when Barajas smacked a two-run, walk-off homer against Washington in May. When Barajas crossed home plate, the entire team made the "Z" sign in tribute.
Over the last two months, it's taken on a life of its own. Zoltan t-shirts have become a fixture at PNC Park (where the Pirates have put together the best home record in baseball) and people have taken to flashing the "Z" to manager Clint Hurdle when he's out on a grocery run.
"We Are Family" - the disco anthem the Pirates turned into a touchstone while winning the 1979 World Series - is it not. Though Hurdle hardly cares.
"I think that's just the men taking ownership of what they're doing and having some fun with it," he said.
No wonder some fans are saying "Dude, Where's My Pirates?"
The same franchise that carries an ignominious streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons is 11 games over .500 (48-37) for the first time since the Pirates last made the playoffs in 1992. McCutchen is greeted by chants of "MVP! MVP!" every time he steps to the plate at the suddenly packed home ballpark and the pitching staff has been lights out.
The Pirates flirted with first place last July before crumbling under the weight of heightened expectations and a series of injuries that gutted a fragile offense. It was a painful lesson to learn, but one Hurdle believes will pay off during the dog days to come as Pittsburgh tries to make an extended run atop a watered-down NL Central.
"I think the confidence level is a lot higher than it was last year," pitcher Kevin Correia said. "I think last year we were in it, but I don't think people were taking it seriously, even ourselves a little bit, not knowing how long this thing was going to last. Now, we feel we're as good or better than the teams we're playing right now."
And the Pirates are playing like it. Pittsburgh has the NL's best record over the last two months as an offense that slogged through the spring has awakened behind McCutchen. The All-Star center fielder didn't hit his first homer of the season until May 8. Now he's got 18, fourth-best in the NL.
Pittsburgh made a splash during spring training when it locked their centerpiece to a $51 million contract extension, a major investment by the notoriously thrifty club. The 25-year-old McCutchen has made it look like a bargain.
"Some guys sign a contract and you kind of worry (about motivation)," All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan said. "But he's going out there making it look like they're paying him pennies."
Asked how he would pitch to McCutchen, Hanrahan joked "I'd tell (the catcher) to put up four fingers, stand up and take two steps to the right."
It's not a bad idea.
McCutchen leads the Pirates in nearly every major statistical category, though he's no longer a one-man show. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez has already tied a career high with 16 homers, Walker is providing the duo with protection and the veteran pick-ups in the offseason are making consistent contributions, not all of them in the batter's box.
Though he's struggled at the plate, shortstop Clint Barmes has been playing Gold Glove-level defense. He made a pair of spectacular stops in the ninth inning of a 3-1 win over San Francisco last week to cut short a rally, erasing the boos that have accompanied his .204 batting average.
Barajas, though he's been slowed by a balky knee injury over the last two weeks, has provided the pitching staff with a calming presence and backup Mike McKenry has shown a flair for the dramatic.
Then there's Burnett, who has won nine straight decisions and groomed McDonald into perhaps the biggest surprise of the season's first half. The hard-throwing McDonald has been long on talent but so-so on results.
Not anymore. Taking Burnett's advice to attack hitters with his sometimes scintillating stuff, McDonald ranks in the top five in the NL in ERA (2.37) while harnessing his control. The pitcher who rarely made it to the seventh inning during the first four seasons of his career has now done it eight times in his last 14 starts.
The Pirates made a believer out of San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy after taking two of three from the Giants last weekend.
"Last year they surprised a lot of people and we talked a lot about it at the All-Star break," Bochy said. "It can take a year to get that experience and realize you can play with anybody and realize that's where you're at."
Hurdle likes to say he's happy but not satisfied. The same can be said for his clubhouse. The memories of last summer's swoon are still fresh. They know they're not responsible for The Streak, yet they acknowledge it is out there.
They're trying to exorcise it one "Z" sign at a time.
Updated July 12, 2012