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Anthony Castrovince

Bucs deriving strength from their schedule

After 28 straight games against 2012 contenders, Hurdle's crew looks solid

Bucs deriving strength from their schedule

PITTSBURGH -- "Strength of schedule," in this particular sport, is all relative and admittedly a little dumb.

There are 162 games on that schedule, and there are a multitude of variables in place each time two teams take the field within those 162 games, with starting pitching matchups being chief among them in importance. The sub-.500 team you face today could very well be in quite the opposite position a month from now, and vice versa.

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So let's not get too hung up on the Pirates' strength of schedule thus far. But let's also understand that their 18-15 record, even following Wednesday's 2-1 loss to Felix Hernandez and the Mariners, is awfully encouraging to folks around here -- and not just because the Bucs recently finished their most successful opening month in, oh, a couple decades.

"It would have been easy," shortstop Clint Barmes said, "to go through that first month and blame the schedule or the pitching we faced. It wasn't an easy schedule."

Again, it's all relative, but after opening the season against the Cubs, the Pirates played 28 straight games against teams that had contended deep into 2012, and they came out with their head above water. And for a Pirates team that, as you might have noticed, did not contend deep into '12, this was a huge mental hurdle crossed. Because if there were questions about this club's ability to bounce back from last year's late-summer collapse, those questions were answered positively.

"We've been competitive," said manager Clint Hurdle.

The curiosity, of course, is whether they'll remain competitive up to and into October.

The Pirates famously went 18-41 in the home stretch in 2011 and 16-36 to finish off '12, two dizzying falls from grace for teams that had each been flirting with the organization's first winning season since 1992. So any skepticism surrounding this squad is earned and understandable, until further notice.

And it only stands to reason that Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington are on notice. The higher-ups want "a step forward," as majority owner Bob Nutting has put it, and who can blame them? The strides made here in recent years have in many ways been offset by the inability to "Finish" -- a phrase adopted as the team motto in '12, only to serve as cruel irony in the end.

That's why both the current record and the particulars behind it are worth a deeper look here. The Pirates haven't pounded on patsies or simply jumped on the back of superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen and unsustainable success in the starting staff (a la 2011). Their strong start, in fact, came in the face of a slow one for Cutch, who was hitting .216 with a .661 OPS as recently as April 29, and a rather underwhelming output from the rotation, which has the fewest quality starts (12) of any National League club.

McCutchen should be just fine, thank you. His offensive output has recovered quite a bit the last week and a half (14-for-32 with three extra-base hits and six RBIs). Starling Marte's emergence as one of the more dynamic leadoff men in the league (.331 average, .927 OPS) and catcher Russell Martin's power (13 extra-base hits, .543 slugging percentage) have added new dimensions to an offense that has averaged 4.52 runs per game dating back to April 8.

The greatest strength of this Pirates club, once again, is a sturdy back end of the bullpen, led by closer Jason Grilli and setup man Mark Melancon, who have combined to allow just two earned runs in 31 innings of work. Seriously, how good does the decision to deal Joel Hanrahan (now on his second disabled-list stint of the young season) to Boston in a trade that netted Melancon look right about now?

Of course, the threat of overwork for that 'pen is very real, unless the starting staff hits its stride. A.J. Burnett, a tough-luck loser Wednesday, has been very good again (2.57 ERA), Jeff Locke has been -- ahem -- locked in lately (1.50 ERA over his last three starts), while Jeanmar Gomez, who spun five scoreless Tuesday night, has given the Bucs a lot to think about with some rotation decisions approaching.

But with James McDonald ailing and Wandy Rodriguez serving up home runs at an alarming rate (1.7 per nine innings), the Pirates find themselves needing and not just wishing on strong returns from Francisco Liriano, who suits up Saturday, and Charlie Morton, who should be back next week. Otherwise, the proponents for promoting top prospects Gerrit Cole and/or Jameson Taillon are sure to make their voices heard.

Hey, at least the Pirates have depth in their options, even if a couple of those options are obviously inexperienced. The goal all along in the Huntington regime has been to build a foundation from within -- about homegrown reliever Duke Welker, Hurdle said on Wednesday morning, "I love it when we call up one of our own, because it's just another testament to what we're doing and how we're doing it." And the Pirates hope this is the year -- finally, mercifully -- when those efforts pay off in the standings.

"They've done a nice job over here," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "They've got some core players, they've got a couple veteran guys, they've got a star player in McCutchen. I remember Grilli when he was young in Detroit and just trying to find it, and of course he has now. They've done a nice job."

And they've started strong, despite an opening schedule arguably as difficult as any other in the league.

Of course, that schedule strength is all relative. And as the Pirates know too well, the strong start only matters if it's accompanied by a strong finish.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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