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Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen (22) is greeted by third base coach Nick Leyva after hitting a home run in the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins,Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013, in Pittsburgh.

Phil Garner played in Pittsburgh when it was a confetti-covered sports paradise, back when the Pirates joined the Steelers and Pitt atop the world to form the "City of Champions."

He remembers what the town was like before the Pirates fell into the abyss.

So now that Pittsburgh -- first-place Pittsburgh -- is within reach of ending a two-decade losing streak, the man known as "Scrap Iron" is happy to see the franchise getting off the scrap heap.

"You're darn right I'm watching them," Garner, now 64, said by phone this week. "I hope they don't falter this year. I'm really pulling for them because they've got a fun team and they have some kids who can play. I'm hoping that it brings back memories of '79 when we really finished off strong."

Pittsburgh opens a four-game series at AT&T Park starting Thursday. The Pirates arrive with a 74-52 record that puts them comfortably in range of a playoff spot. They are one game ahead of St. Louis in the National League Central and 21/2 ahead of Cincinnati, currently the second wild-card team.

All of that, of course, is the source of much consternation back home.

The Pirates haven't won the World Series since 1979 and haven't made the playoffs since 1992. That was their last finish above .500, and their 20 consecutive losing seasons since is the longest streak in North American major pro sports history.


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They've teased twice in recent years, only to spend August and September sky diving in the standings. In 2011, the Pirates were in first place as late as July 25 ... and soon lost 10 games in a row en route to finishing 72-90, 24 games out of first place In 2012, they were 63-47 on Aug. 8 and went 16-36 the rest of the way.

That's why modern Pirates fans are approaching the stretch drive the way Charlie Brown approaches a football:

They really, really want to believe this time but ... can they?

"The vibe is good, but there is still that overlying -- I don't know if it's fear or anxiety -- over the collapse of last year," said Jim Trdinich, the team's director of baseball communications and a full-time club employee since 1989. "I'm sure that's hanging over a lot of people's heads here in Pittsburgh."

So their current lackluster August -- they're 9-10 this month -- has fans on edge. Adam Szymkowiak, 30, a Pittsburgh native, said the swings are particularly tough on the bandwagon crowd.

"They go back and forth almost every game," Szymkowiak said. "They win, and it's, 'We're going to do it this year!' And then they lose a game and it's, 'No, they're going to falter.' If they lose a few games in a row, everybody panics."

Despite the long wait, Szymkowiak acknowledges he still is healing from the Pirates' last trip to the playoffs. That '92 season ended with Pittsburgh blowing a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the N.L. championship series against the Atlanta Braves.

That was 586 Bonds home runs ago.

Much of the hopes for this year's team hinges on Andrew McCutchen, playing the role of Bonds as the speedy, powerful outfielder and the face of the franchise. With one more home run, McCutchen would become the sixth player in team history to hit at least 100 home runs and steal at least 100 bases in his career. The others are Bonds, Al Martin, Andy Van Slyke, Dave Parker and Paul Waner.

"He's a stud," said Garner, who now works as a special assistant in the A's front office and wants to see an Oakland-Pittsburgh matchup in the World Series.

Third baseman Pedro Alvarez is tied for the National League lead with 31 home runs, the most by a Pirates left-handed hitter since Brian Giles hit 38 in 2002.

Francisco Liriano, the former Giants farmhand packaged with Joe Nathan in the A.J. Pierzynski trade after the 2003 season, is 14-5 with a 2.53 ERA. Liriano is playing on a one-year, $1 million deal but can earn $13.75 million plus award bonuses over two seasons in the incentive-laden contract. He had agreed to but hadn't signed a $12.75 million, two-year deal in December before suffering a broken right arm on Christmas Day while goofing around with his kids. He then agreed to the restructured contract.

Liriano has been rounding into form since making his season debut May 11. In his last start, on Monday, he struck out a season-high 13, including eight of the first 11 batters he faced.

He's part of a rotation that also features Gerrit Cole, 22. The No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft is 6-6 with a 3.81 ERA. (Cole's girlfriend is Amy Crawford, the sister of Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford.) Cole has allowed three or fewer earned runs in all but one of his 13 starts.

Presiding over all is Clint Hurdle, 56, a one-time can't-miss prospect who mostly missed -- and re-emerged as one of the game's most respected managers.

"He's had a great impact," said columnist Gene Collier, a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said by phone. "He's a very upbeat guy, a very positive guy. He knows how to deal with all the failures the game brings because he went through it as a player."

Is this the year? Collier says the so-so August feels more like a "comfortable cruising altitude" than the collapse that sank the past few seasons. Trdinich said this year's squad is better mentally equipped to handle a rough patch because the younger players have been through late-season pressure, and veteran additions such as catcher Russell Martin are well-suited to calm a rocking boat.

Trdinich said this year feels like turning a new page -- at least in the morning paper

"Usually every time by mid-July, we would be pushed to Page 4 of the sports section because the Steelers are in camp. Now we're still above the fold," he said. "People have always said it's a football town. But it's a winning town."

Follow Daniel Brown on Twitter at twitter.com/mercbrownie.

Andrew McCutchen (above) and the Pirates are looking to break a 20-season losing streak. It's been more than two decades since Barry Bonds (top photo, left) and Bobby Bonilla (top photo, right) patrolled the outfield, 21 years since Atlanta's Sid Bream (middle) slid past Mike LaValliere to win the 1992 NLCS, and 34 years since Ed Ott, bottom right, and Phil Garner helped the Pirates win the 1979 World Series.

PHOTOS BY
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE (BOTTOM RIGHT), Getty Images (middle right, top right) and Gregory Bull/ ap (McCutchen)

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POUND GIANTS

Bochy ponders team's future on day Giants lose 12-1. PAGE 5

THURSDAY'S GAME

Pittsburgh (Jeff Locke 9-4) at Giants (Matt Cain (8-8), 7:15 p.m. CSNBA