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Senior Baseball Columnist

Pirates out to end years of losing, just might pull it off this year

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Manager Clint Hurdle looks to guide the Pirates to their first winning season in 20 years. (Getty Images)  
Manager Clint Hurdle looks to guide the Pirates to their first winning season in 20 years. (Getty Images)  

What a world we're living in when the Pirates are buyers for a second successive summer.

The motley, peg-legged, threadbare-eye patch, two-decades-of-losing-dragging Buccos. Adding help in July. With a great chance for things to turn out better this summer than last.

Wandy Rodriguez? In the galley.

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A bat to help the boys? General manager Neal Huntington is somewhere out on the high seas as we speak, preparing to plunder to get one.

Andrew McCutchen knocks in another run, and the world is a better place. A.J. Burnett wins another game, it's like everyone you know is recycling and planting trees. The stingy Buccos bullpen slams the door for another evening, you're enjoying dinner on your back deck with no mosquitoes.

It's a beautiful thing, a world that is becoming more We Are Fam-a-lee harmonious by the day.

It's been way too long since the Pirates were relevant. Pittsburgh is one of America's greatest sports cities. More than a century of hardball history oozes along the Allegheny here. PNC Park is one of America's best baseball venues.

"I'm happy," Bucs manager Clint Hurdle boomed after the Rodriguez deal that was quickly overshadowed by the Phillies and Cole Hamels and the Marlins/Dodgers and Hanley Ramirez on Wednesday. "I've had my eyes on him for awhile. He competes. He's been tough to hit [for] any team that I've had. He's been tough to beat.

"I really feel that him getting an opportunity now to make a change, get to a [new] club, maybe a fresh start ... I think it's going to help."

Understand, it's not as if the Pirates collared Zack Greinke, or Cole Hamels. This isn't Cliff Lee galloping into Texas to aid the Rangers in 2010.

It isn't even unanimous that Rodriguez will put them over the top in the NL Central.

"I don't want Wandy," one NL executive told me Tuesday. "He's pitched well in Houston. That's about it. On that mound there."

He was signed by the Astros as an amateur free agent in 1999. He grew up in Houston. He's never been employed by anyone but Houston.

True fact, his numbers in Houston are much better than they are on the road.

In 112 starts in Houston, Wandy compiled a 3.44 ERA.

In 106 starts on the road, it was more than a run higher, 4.72. (In 10 starts in Pittsburgh's PNC Park, he's 3-5 with a 4.45 ERA).

Also true is the fact that Rodriguez's strikeout rate has declined, from a rate of 8.6 per nine innings in 2008 to 6.1 per nine in 2012.

That doesn't bother Huntington a whit.

"He's gone from fastball, curveball, changeup, strikeout to, this year, having his ground ball rate up around 10 percent," Huntington said. "So there is a tradeoff.

"He's pitched to contact more, he's tried to work deeper into games more. Our scouts have still seen the quality curveball. If we can get him back to four-seam in, two-seam away, and the hard changeup, hard curveball, we still feel the ability to strike out hitters is in there. But, at the same time, pitching efficiently and getting early-count contact is not a bad thing."

Fact is, it's worked exceptionally well for Rodriguez even as his strikeout rate has diminished.

Since the beginning of the 2009 season, only the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and the Phillies' Hamels have more strikeouts and wins among NL left-handers than does Rodriguez. And since '09, Rodriguez ranks 21st in the majors strikeouts and 25th in ERA (3.44).

Far more often than not, he's given his team a chance to win.

For far too long, that's exactly what the Pirates haven't had.

"We like the innings, we like the strikeouts, we like the ERA, we like the competitor," Huntington says. "He has very quietly been one of the better pitchers in major-league baseball over the last three or four years."

There are two other things here. Along with Burnett, James McDonald, the lefty Erik Bedard and either Kevin Correia or Jeff Karstens, the lefty Rodriguez provides a different wrinkle for opposing hitters.

And since he's signed through 2013 -- with a player option for 2014 -- the Pirates gain another measure of stability with a talented core poised to turn the losingest sports franchise in North America over the past 19 years into a winner.

Baseball is coming back in Pittsburgh. The Bucs have lost every which way possible for far too long. Close. Lopsided. Heartbreakers. Hair-raisers. Nail-biters. Routs.

But from May 25 through Wednesday, the Pirates' 34-18 record was the best in the NL and second-best in the majors. Only the Yankees (35-18) won more. There's something happening here.

The Bucs sank like a wounded ship last August and September after adding hitters Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee at the trade deadline. Lee missed significant time with a hand injury after coming to Pittsburgh, then was terrific in September after the Pirates' faded. Ludwick was awful from the beginning.

A year older and with far better pitching, Hurdle's crew should have much better staying power now. And if Huntington can add another hitter, look out. As things stand now, they've recalled top prospect Starling Marte, and the outfielder will join them for Thursday's game in Houston.

Who knows what else happens between now and Tuesday.

But for now, as Huntington explained, "we had an opportunity to make a move for a player we liked."

Two years in a row. Imagine.

Wednesday, the Pirates played in front of 33,935, the largest weekday crowd ever to attend an afternoon game at PNC Park.

If only Willie Stargell could see them now.

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