PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Pirates are used to this part, the one where they spend the first half of the season stunning the baseball world with their play. Call it a byproduct of two decades of mediocrity.
Yet promising starts in 2011 and 2012 ended up in an all too familiar place, with the team under .500 after cratering under the pressure of a pennant race.
The freefalls were painful, yet closer Jason Grilli insists they were an important part of the growth process for a franchise learning how to win. Still, even the perpetually optimistic Grilli knows a third disappearing act is unacceptable.
"The time's now," Grilli said. "There's no more development. It's time to win."
It's a message echoed from all corners of the clubhouse, from veterans like Grilli, 36, to 25-year-old revelation Jeff Locke to star center fielder Andrew McCutchen to perpetually optimistic manager Clint Hurdle. All understand the club's best record at the All-Star break (56-37) in 37 years will be rendered a tantalizing footnote if Lucy pulls the football away from Charlie Brown one more time.
"Nobody out there is satisfied," Hurdle said last week. "I know I'm not satisfied."
Hurdle may more to prove than his players. Though he led the Rockies to the World Series in 2007, his post All-Star break record as a manager is 292-362.
The Pirates begin the second half of the season in Cincinnati tonight.
The only place Pittsburgh's play isn't a surprise is in the Pirates' dugout. It's why Grilli didn't get too worked up when "Sports Illustrated" put the fiery, emotional leader on the cover this week, the first time a Pirate has made the front page of the magazine since Barry Bonds 21 years ago.
"These are things that you can really get caught up in, and I'm not that guy," Grilli said. "I'm here and I'm doing well because my teammates are succeeding, too, and they're helping me be successful."
And doing it in a grown-up way.
The youthful "Zoltan" signs the team used as a touchstone last year - a tongue-in-cheek nod to the slacker comedy "Dude Where's My Car?" - now only pop up occasionally. And while Grilli has nicknamed the bullpen "The Shark Tank" because of its tenacity, the Pirates are playing with a maturity it lacked even a year ago.
They showcased it early after stumbling to a 1-5 start the first week of the season. All they've done since is put together the best record in baseball to remain a nagging presence behind the Cardinals in the NL Central. When the cracks in the foundation appeared to start showing just before the break during a four-game losing streak, the Pirates responded with a three straight wins to put talk of "the Collapse III" to rest. At least for now.