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Morning Java: The Pirates will never lose again

By Dejan Kovacevic | Trib Total Media

Morning, Lunatics …

>> No column today because of the Stanley Cup playoffs forcing us to flip schedules because I’ve been assigned to the Penguins throughout the run.

>> We will, however, have the weekly chat that was pushed back from yesterday. It’ll be at noon right here on the blog. Hope to see you in there.


>> The Pirates will never lose again.

At least that’s how they’re performing at the moment, despite an offense that ranks 19th in runs, 20th in OPS (the vital on-base plus slugging percentage stat), and a defense that ranks 17th in UZR (the equally vital Ultimate Zone Rating).

None of those should lead to one of the National League’s three best records.

But that’s why they say pitching is the name of the game, right?

The starting pitchers haven’t gone deep but have been mostly fine while on the mound, with a 3.61 ERA that ranks 10th. That’s largely to the credit of A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and, of late, Jeff Locke, Francisco Liriano and even Jeanmar Gomez.

And yet, all of the above pales next to the bullpen, which ranks No. 1 in just about every category, notably a 1.14 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) and 161 strikeouts. That, of course, is mostly due to nothing less than brilliance from Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon.

The relievers have been superlative beyond adjectives, and that’s a credit not only to the pitchers but also to all who acquired (Neal Huntington et al) and are instructing them (Ray Searage et al). Going above and beyond to this degree is never a player-only operation.

Beyond the tangibles, they’ve also shown a team toughness with all the comebacks and close victories, a credit not only to Clint Hurdle but also to the clubhouse leaders.

This team, basically, is A.J. in that regard …

I obviously haven’t seen much of the Pirates directly because of the hockey duty, but I continue to have grave concerns about the sustainability of any of what we’re seeing, and I think that’s perfectly reasonable given the above. I’m especially worried about the heavy usage of Grilli and Melancon. And I’d note, too, that including the rain-caused short start yesterday, the Pirates are now 13-11 when the starter goes less than six innings.

That’s just nuts.

For one, they’ve now had more starts of less than six innings (24) than with six or more (23). No team wins like that over a full summer. None. Even the 2012 Pirates were far better in this area, with 117 games of six-plus, 65 games of less than six.

For another, almost every team’s record is bad in games where the starter goes less than six innings. The 2012 Pirates were 22-43 in those games, 57-40 when they went six-plus. And the bullpen was pretty good last year, too.

All of this sounds like a comeuppance is due, in some form or other. The advanced statistical site FanGraphs does projected standings based on a variety of factors, and right now it’s got the Pirates going pretty much .500 the rest of the way (58-57). I’m having even a hard time with something that promising, if only because this team basically has yet to have a meaningful injury other than Neil Walker’s couple weeks out and the loss of James McDonald, who probably wasn’t long for the rotation, anyway.

But we’ll see.

And again, that shouldn’t take a sliver of credit away from this team being 11 games over .500 on the 23rd of May. It’s impressive, to say the least.

Next up are the Brewers, Reds, Angels, Tigers, Braves, teams a lot tougher than what the Pirates just faced, and it should be a telling stretch in terms of sustainability.

>> Let’s clear this up: Liriano is not pitching for a guaranteed $1 million this season, as I’ve been reading and hearing a lot lately. There was a $1 million risk to his signing, but only if one operates under the absurd assumption that his broken non-pitching arm never would have healed.

Here are all contract details as reported on the team’s official site, confirmed elsewhere.

Put simply, the moment Liriano joined the rotation — three starts ago — every single aspect of the full contract kicked because the broken non-pitching arm, the only injury specified in the deal, has healed.

Thus, he’ll earn roughly $4 million this year guaranteed, and what’s more, he’ll vest an option for next year at anywhere between $5 million-$8 million. For those who don’t know, vesting means the contract kicks in automatically. Yes, there is a club option to the terms, but that’s overridden by the vesting.

Liriano’s been incredible through three starts, and his performance, if sustained, would very much warrant the above money. But let’s not make it out to be some $1 million bargain. It isn’t. Liriano is now assured of making about $12 million over the next two seasons.

>> Joe Starkey’s column, moved to today, looks at the Penguins’ historic offense in advance of Game 5 tonight. Much more on the club on this morning, too, including this Gary Bettman interview by our Rob Rossi.

>> The Steelers sounded excited about their new blocking scheme, according to Mark Kaboly, who loves to write about the trenches.

>> Hope to have you in the chat!

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Author: Dejan Kovacevic

Dejan Kovacevic, a lifelong Pittsburgher, is an award-winning sports columnist for Trib Total Media covering the Steelers, Penguins, Pirates, Pitt and, recently, his fourth Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He also appears on WPXI-TV's 'Subway Final Word’ and hosts a weekly show on TribLIVE Radio. For 2011, he was named one of the country's top four columnists by the AP Sports Editors. For 2012, he was named one of the country's top three columnists by the National Headliners. For 2013, he was named the state's top columnist by the Keystone Press Awards and top columnist in Western Pennsylvania by the Golden Quills.

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