Rejuvenated Pirates ready to start anew

Francisco Liriano
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano throws during the first inning of a spring exhibition baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Bradenton, Fla., Thursday, March 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

PITTSBURGH (AP) – The family reunion will be short. Whether it will be sweet hardly matters. At last, the wounds of 21 years of futility have finally started to heal.

One magical summer took care of all that.

When the Pittsburgh Pirates take the field for Monday’s opener against the rebuilding Chicago Cubs, they’ll do it without the burden of two decades of losing. They’ll do it with the momentum that comes after the best season in a generation, and something just as valuable as they try to prove their breakout 2013 was no fluke: legitimate optimism.

“I feel very confident about the hunger in the room, the focus on getting better,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “These guys work hard and they have a lot of fun. It’s a unique combination to be a part of.”

One last bit of housekeeping awaits for the Pirates before 2014 begins. In a nod to the club’s storied past and its promising present, two familiar faces will provide some closure on a breathtaking season when Barry Bonds and Jim Leyland present their current-day counterparts with a little hardware.

Bonds will hand star center fielder Andrew McCutchen the 2013 NL MVP Award. Leyland will do the same for Hurdle, the 2013 NL Manager of the Year.

Leyland remains a beloved figure 18 years after his departure. Bonds, whose decision to leave Pittsburgh for San Francisco following the 1992 season marked the start of the darkest era in Pirates history, does not.

Though their reception might be mixed, their presence will serve as a symbolic closing of one of the most ignominious chapters in the history of professional sports.

Finally, baseball is back in Pittsburgh. And the current group of Pirates plans to keep it that way.

“This is a group that has come together,” Hurdle said. “They know what they want, they know the sacrifice they have to make to get there. They don’t overcook things mentally and they’re pretty good at moving on from minor disappointments or setbacks.”

Perhaps it’s fitting then, that the player who exemplified Pittsburgh’s resurgence in 2013 will take the mound in the opener. Last spring, left-hander Francisco Liriano was rehabilitating a broken right arm and wondering if the mechanical changes to his delivery would ever pay off.

He ended the season with 16 wins, had two more solid starts in the playoffs and begins 2014 elevated to the role of ace after veteran A.J. Burnett bolted for Philadelphia in free agency.

It’s a position Liriano does not take for granted after spending five years trying to regain the form he flashed before Tommy John surgery derailed his career in 2007.

“It’s an honor,” Liriano said. “I just want to stay calm and try to go as deep in the game as I can.”

While most preseason predictions have the Pirates still in the mix in the highly competitive NL Central, the Cubs have replaced Pittsburgh as the team moored at the bottom of the standings. Chicago hasn’t finished above .500 in five years, the club’s longest streak of futility since 1985-88.

Though President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein’s project remains very much a work in progress, the Cubs have some building blocks, including opening day starter Jeff Samardzija. The right-hander pitched eight innings of two-hit ball while beating Pittsburgh in the opener last year, though it did little to prevent Chicago from a miserable April that doomed it to another also-ran finish.

Although the Cubs allow they have some catching up to do, they’re not exactly planning on playing down to diminished expectations.

“We’re going to stick with the positive mentality,” pitcher Jason Hammel said. “It’s a big year for everybody. We’re not going to pay attention to what everybody else says. We know what we have in this clubhouse and we’re just going to keep pushing each other and picking each other up. We have very high expectations for ourselves and that’s just the way it is. If we get off on a good roll, who knows what can happen?”

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