By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP National Writer
(AP) - With apologies to Bryce Harper and the first-place Washington Nationals _ not to mention the individual brilliance of everyone from Josh Hamilton to Matt Cain _ the Pittsburgh Pirates are the best story in baseball over the first half of the season.
Yes, the Pirates.
Sure, there are some non-believers, even in the Steel City. But this is a different Pittsburgh team.
Take Tuesday night, when the Pirates were one pitch from victory and blew it, just like they have so many times over the last two decades. Then in the bottom of the ninth, a baseball vagabond named Drew Sutton launched a massive drive over the center-field wall, the first walk-off homer of his career.
Pittsburgh is tied for first in the NL Central and eight games above .500 for the first time since 1992, which is about the last time anyone paid much attention to this team.
Actually, the Pirates are a National League franchise with quite a proud history, not that anyone who has checked in on them during the last generation or so would know that they were anything more than a Triple-A team in disguise.
You see, Pittsburgh has managed to put up an astonishing 19 losing seasons in a row, the longest streak for any professional franchise in any of the four major North American sports.
Pittsburgh became a baseball wasteland as soon as Sid Bream _ a former Pirates first baseman, no less _ slid across the plate to give the Atlanta Braves an improbable victory in the '92 NL championship series. Barry Bonds left town shortly afterward, and the Pirates were done.
Now, just by pure chance, a big league club should stumble into a winning season every decade or so, even if they aren't really trying that hard. Heck, the Pirates could've broken their streak of total incompetence merely by winning as many as they lost one season. A .500 record isn't a losing record, but even that rather modest task has eluded these guys.
This year is looking a whole lot different.
They're cooking up something special in Pittsburgh, and for the first time in a long time we're not just talking about the NFL Steelers or the NHL Penguins, both of whom have won championships during the Pirates' long, bumbling run.
"We're playing for a lot more here," manager Clint Hurdle was saying the other night. "We're playing for a city, the goal being to re-bond the city with its ballclub."
Not surprisingly, a city that has been burned so many times isn't rushing out to the ballpark in huge numbers. The Pirates rank next-to-last in the NL with an average turnout of less than 25,000 per night, but the fans are slowly coming around to the idea that this will be the year, finally, that they have more wins in the column than losses.
They might go even further than that.
Sutton's homer gave the Pirates a wild 8-7 victory over the Houston Astros on Tuesday night, a gutsy performance that set off a justifiably raucous celebration at PNC Park, complete with a Gatorade bath and a shaving cream pie to the face for the hero.
But this was about far more than the final swing.
Pittsburgh trailed by four runs twice but rallied behind the play of Andrew McCutchen _ rapidly establishing himself as the best all-around player in the game and an MVP candidate. But closer Joel Hanrahan couldn't hold it in the ninth, one of his rare stumbles this season.
The Pirates, circa 1993-2011, might've folded right there.
But, no, this team was just setting itself up for a truly memorable finish. Sutton sent one soaring out of the deepest part of the park, throwing up his arms like a giddy Little Leaguer as he rounded first base. A mob awaited him when he got to home plate, pummeling a player who has had very few experiences like this in his up-but-mostly-down career.
Sutton only turned 29 a few days ago, but he's already bounced around to seven organizations. This year alone, he's been with three teams _ four, if you consider that the Pirates purchased him from Atlanta in May, sold him to Tampa Bay the very next day, then claimed him back from the Rays off waivers last week.
"Baseball is a roller-coaster, man," Sutton said. "This reminds you why we do the grind we do as players, for little moments like this where it all melts away."