by Steve Campbell
The Houston Chronicle
July 15, 2011
PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 10: Neil Walker(notes) #18 congratulates teammate Paul Maholm(notes) #28 of the Pittsburgh Pirates after their win against the Chicago Cubs during the game on July 10, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
The Pittsburgh Pirates are young, and they’re hungry. They try hard, they’re eager to please, and for all Pirates manager Clint Hurdle knows, they help the elderly cross the street in their spare time.
Well, excuse Hurdle if he doesn’t hand out trophies for any of that.
“Try hard?” Hurdle said. “That’s like grits with breakfast in the South: It just comes with the deal. This isn’t a try-hard league. This is a do-good league. You don’t go up when you do well here. You stay here until you stink, and you figure out how to do well again.”
After two decades of trying times, the Pirates have emerged as surprise do-gooders. The Pirates, who averaged 97 defeats the previous six seasons, hit the All-Star break trailing St. Louis and Milwaukee by one game in the National League Central. Hurdle’s squad begin a three-game series against the Astros tonight at Minute Maid Park with a 47-43 record.
The Pirates’ last winning season was 1992. Those were the days Barry Bonds was a sleek, five-tool left fielder, Doug Drabek was the staff ace and the Astros played under a roof that didn’t open.
“I don’t think we have to prove anything to anybody but ourselves,” said Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, who is seventh in the NL in RBIs (59).
“To a degree, you could say we’re naïve. Everybody is writing us off. But we believe in each other.”
Pittsburgh has the lowest payroll in the NL ($45.0 million), with three All-Stars (center fielder Andrew McCutchen, closer Joel Hanrahan and starting pitcher Kevin Correia) combining to make less than one-third the $18.5 million salary Astros left fielder Carlos Lee commands. The Pirates also have the youngest team in the NL (average age: 27.2), which McCutchen suggests “has its perks.”
“Being a younger team, we’re not going to get tired,” said McCutchen, who is batting .291 with 14 home runs, 54 RBIs and 15 stolen bases. “We’re not going to give up. We’re just like that little gnat that bugs you all the time, won’t get out of your face. We’re going to stay there the whole time.”
Hurdle, 53, took the job last November with Pittsburgh coming off a 55-107 season. He talks with a straight face about becoming “a world championship organization.” A former Kansas City Royals phenom who never became a star, Hurdle managed the Colorado Rockies from 2002-09. His only winning season was 2007, when he led the Rockies to the World Series.
Because of the Pirates’ relative inexperience, he said he manages with “almost an instructional-league mentality.” When making an in-game correction, Hurdle likes to have the offending player repeat what was said to make sure there are no misunderstandings.
“I know there are days you need to be a leader,” Hurdle said. “There are days you need to be a coach. There are days you need to be a couch. And there are days I just flat-out need to be a manager. I do think there are days they just need to know what’s important to me. Feelings get hurt sometimes, but we’ve got to put our big-boy pants on and work our way through those and know the ultimate focus is us winning ballgames.”
The Pirates have won with an offense that hit the break 11th in runs scored with 354. It’s no secret the Pirates’ success hinges on solid pitching and tending to details. The Pirates are fifth in the NL with a 3.46 ERA, sixth in defensive efficiency (.699), second in sacrifices (48) and fourth in stolen bases (71).
When the margin for error is as thin as it is for the Pirates, it’s essential to have air-tight pitching at the end of close games. Enter Hanrahan, who has parlayed a 97-mph fastball into a 1.34 ERA and 26 saves in 26 opportunities.
“Clint’s come in and done a great job,” said Astros third-base coach Dave Clark, a former Pirates player (1992-96) who managed in the team’s minor-league system (2003-04). “He brought in accountability, and the kids are going with it. They play hard for 27 outs. And when you have that kind of energy, anything can happen. Especially when you start believing.”
Don’t stop believing
They haven’t even wavered in the face of a spate of injuries that has caused them to use 44 players this season. Among those who have gone down for extended stretches are left fielder Jose Tabata, catchers Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder, shortstop Ronny Cedeno, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and 2010 All-Star reliever Evan Meek.
“We’re trying to win on a daily basis; we’re not trying to put up numbers,” Walker said. “That mentality, everybody has it in this clubhouse. All we’ve got to do is win by one run each night.”
Walker describes Hurdle as “our biggest fan, but he’s also our biggest critic.” Hurdle says he’s “easy to please, hard to satisfy.”
“We’ve had questions in some of our meetings: What’s it going to take for us to do what you believe we can do?” Hurdle said. “I say, ‘It’s going to take everything you’ve got, every day you show up.’ There weren’t any questions after that. ‘OK, we’ve got it.’ ”