- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 4, 2013

They’ve got the best modern ballpark in the country, a gem on Pittsburgh’s North Shore with spectacular views of the city and a bridge you can walk over to see a game. It may be the only place in baseball where french fries come inside a sandwich rather than next to it.

Up until now, all that was missing at PNC Park was a winner.

Pittsburgh will have one this season, though it’s hardly time to start spraying champagne. Not with a precarious lead in the NL Central, and nine games still to be played against the two teams chasing the Pirates down the stretch.

The collapse of last season is still fresh in the minds of Pirates fans everywhere, as if they didn’t have enough history to worry about. An entire generation of new fans who know Sid Bream only as a historical footnote has never experienced a winning team in Pittsburgh.

They’ve been mired in mediocrity for so many years that just clinching at least a .500 season Tuesday night was hailed as an accomplishment. Still, as Brewers manager Ron Roenicke pointed out after the Pirates got win No. 81 Tuesday night in Milwaukee, this is really a good team.

It is, with an MVP candidate in center fielder Andrew McCutchen, a slugger in the middle of the lineup in Pedro Alvarez and a remarkable reclamation project in Francisco Liriano. Adding Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd to the mix in trades within the last week pretty much guaranteed the Bucs will not only have their first winning season in 21 years, but be in the playoffs, too.

The fact the Pirates haven’t shown one sign of folding has to be heartening to long-suffering Pittsburgh fans. So does management’s willingness to go out and spend some money to upgrade the lineup with Morneau and Byrd.

But if this is going to really be a magical year, it’s likely the Pirates need to not only make the playoffs but win their division. After 20 years of losing, nothing could be crueler than facing the very real possibility of being bounced from the playoffs in a one-game wild card where the winner really does take all.

Indeed, the race in the NL Central highlights the main weakness of the new wild card format, implemented last year to keep more teams in playoff contention. Going into Wednesday night the Pirates led the division by two games, with St. Louis two games out and Cincinnati 3 1/2 games back. With no other teams in the National League really in wild card contention, the two teams that don’t win the Central will meet in a one-game playoff with the winner advancing.

Seems fair enough, until you realize that both the first- and second-place teams would have gotten slots in a full division series under the old system.

Not that the Pirates seem too worried about the possibility of one-and-done. They’re enjoying the ride, and the full ballparks at a time of year when fans in Pittsburgh are usually too busy rooting on the Steelers to worry about baseball.

“It was on our to-do list,” manager Clint Hurdle said of the winning season. “We’ll move on from here.”

Hard for Hurdle or any of his charges to get too giddy, because someone will always remind them of the past.

Two decades of losing, including six seasons where the Pirates finished more than 30 games out. It’s the longest streak in any major North American sport, but how it began makes it hurt even more.

With a skinny outfielder named Barry Bonds in left, the Pirates were up 2-0 over the Atlanta Braves going into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the National League championship series in 1992. Three outs and the Pirates go to the World Series for the first time since they danced to the disco hit “We Are Family” after beating the Baltimore Orioles in 1979.

But after a double, an error and a walk, the lead was cut to 2-1. With two outs and the bases loaded, third-string catcher Francisco Cabrera lined a single to left field, and slow-footed Sid Bream was waved around from second with the winning run. Bonds had a chance to get Bream at home, but the throw was just up the line and Bream slid in just before the tag.

In the stands, former President Jimmy Carter high-fived everyone around him as the crowd of 51,000 in Atlanta celebrated one of the most improbable comebacks ever. The Pirates, meanwhile, went into a daze that has taken them two decades to escape.

Whether it ends any better this year may be decided before the playoffs even begin. No team needs the pressure of winning one game to move on after already playing a full season of 162, but the Pirates have history to beat, too.

A winning season is nice. But winning the NL Central may be the only thing that really matters.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg