PITTSBURGH -- Somewhere along a winter caravan route that traversed through western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, James McDonald turned to pitching coach Ray Searage and proposed a wager.
If five starters win 10 games apiece, McDonald offered, Searage would allow them to shave his head, eyebrows and mustache. Searage hesitated initially, but McDonald had done his math and his rationale was good enough for the pitching coach to eventually take the bait.
"You could have 50 wins right there with the starters alone," McDonald figured. "It was just to set a goal to have something to strive for and make it exciting."
Searage agreed, willing to do just about anything to stir motivation. And Searage actually considered the ramifications of the wager before consenting to it, because he believed his rotation could actually achieve such a goal.
Such is a belief few others had. Outside the organization, it was tough to find morsels of praise for this Pirates rotation even by the time Spring Training rolled around. There was an expectation that the starting pitching would be better than it was in 2010, but only because last year's staff had set such a low standard.
The starters had combined for only 34 wins. Their 5.28 ERA was also a Major League worst. Only two starters -- Zach Duke and Paul Maholm -- had more wins that reliever Evan Meek, and neither one reached a double-digit win figure.
None of that, however, prompted management to entirely revamp the rotation. Kevin Correia came in shortly after Duke's exit, while the rest of the faces stayed the same. The Pirates had considered other free-agent possibilities. Ultimately, they believed in the talent they had.
- 131 wins
- 121 wins
Much more, in fact. The Pirates' ability to hover around .500 through the first three months of the season is credit to a pitching staff that has carried an underachieving offense all season. The contributions are from top to bottom, which gives the Pirates reason to believe the drastic improvements aren't going to tail off.
Seventy-seven games into their season, the Pirates' rotation ranks fifth in the National League, with a 3.65 ERA. The group is on pace to win 61 games as a unit and to reach last year's win total by the time the All-Star break rolls around.
There was one recent stretch in which no starter allowed more than two earned runs in 13 straight games.
"We're pitching more so to our abilities," Charlie Morton said. "We've all gotten to the big leagues, so it's not like we didn't have talent. It was just figuring out how to make it work."
Searage, who is in his first full season as pitching coach, has been doused with credit for the turnaround, and certainly, plenty of praise is due his way. His ascension to the position following the dismissal of Joe Kerrigan was met with ubiquitous relief in the clubhouse.
Not only did Searage have a familiarity with most of these pitchers -- he began coaching in the organization's Minor League system in 2003 -- but he was known as being a pitcher's pitching coach.
"He's a chameleon," Maholm explained. "He's able to adapt to each guy. He knows each guy's personality. He knows when he needs to jump you. He knows when he needs to be the cheerleader for you and pick you up. He's a guy you want to go out there and do well for."
The coaching hasn't been left only to Searage. The starters' success, Searage believes, has a lot to do with how much the pitchers have invested in one another. He'll find the group conversing during games, often offering in-game advice as they pick up on things while watching from the dugout.
Their interaction, which usually takes place down on the left side of the dugout, is constant, and it is extremely well-received.
"I happen to walk by every now and then and hear some good conversations going on," Searage said. "[These talks] had a beginning of its own, and then all of a sudden, it started to snowball. They were getting good results out of it and getting good information from each other. They're not afraid to give constructive criticism on another guy and tell him what he should do."
As good as the collective results have been, the individual growth has been remarkable.
From a place most would never be able to emerge, Morton has reinvented himself. His motion and sinker have drawn comparisons to Roy Halladay all year, and while his results don't match that of the Philadelphia ace, he is an entirely different pitcher than the one who went 2-12 with a 7.57 ERA a year ago.
"He has done more than anybody here could have even fathomed at this point in the year," manager Clint Hurdle said.
Correia and Maholm have anchored the staff through their experience, and both have made significant individual strides. Maholm accepted Hurdle's challenge to pitch inside more and that has made him much less predictable to face. Correia, free from the emotional stress that plagued him after the death of his brother last May, has thrived in new surroundings.
First a spring injury and now inefficiency have hurt McDonald's ability to pitch deep into games, though the Pirates have seem glimpses of how nasty the right-hander's fastball-curveball mix can be when he's on. Purely from a talent standpoint, McDonald is up there with anyone in the rotation.
And then there's Jeff Karstens, perhaps is the best story of the bunch. Pegged as someone who didn't have the stamina to thrive as a starter, Karstens stepped into Ross Ohlendorf's spot in the rotation the second week of the season and has removed any such labels.
His 2.66 ERA is the fifth best in the NL, and Karstens has arguably been the team's first-half MVP given the way he stabilized the rotation.
"My whole goal from Spring Training on is that if I get an opportunity, run with it and make it hard for them to me out of there," Karstens said. "I felt like I've kind of done that."
This all has the rotation poised for a legitimate chance at having some late-season barbershop fun.
Correia could have 10 wins before July. McDonald and Karstens are halfway there, and Morton sits only three shy. Maholm needs six more, though that shouldn't be hard to get -- if he continues to pitch the way he has all year.
"I hope it happens," joked Correia, "because I know he doesn't want to shave his mustache at all."
The starter with the most wins will get the honor of doing the shave.
"It'll grow back," consented Searage. "Either that or I'll get a Sharpie."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.