Monday, August 19, 2013

Huntington needs to finish the job

Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen strikes out in the 15th inning against the Diamondbacks on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013, at PNC Park.
About Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Sports Columnist Dejan Kovacevic can be reached via e-mail

By Dejan Kovacevic 
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Published: Sunday, August 18, 2013, 10:09 p.m.

Andrew McCutchen doesn't take losses hard. Hasn't done it his whole career. Strips off the uniform, showers, buttons up, looks ahead to the next day.
He took this one hard.
He was sitting at his stall more than 15 minutes after the final out, full uniform still stuck on his frame, mud caking his chest and his cleats, head down with only the famous dreads poking out from under the cap. Everyone else was gone.
“It's not hard,” McCutchen tried selling me a bit later, to no avail. “It's another game.”
He's right, of course. Mathematically, it's one of 162.
But it also took 16 interminable innings, 14 zeroes put up by Charlie Morton and the bulldog bullpen, a Cinderella big-league debut from Kris Johnson, dynamite defensive gems from Jordy Mercer and Starling Marte … only to have it all die off with Adam Eaton's one-handed flick of a two-run double that Cutch nearly caught but didn't.
“I slid. I got there. It hit the ground.”
So did the scoreboard: Diamondbacks 4, Pirates 2.
Just one of 162.
And yet, it was unfortunately symbolic of so many of the other 51 losses against the 72 wins, and the reason was tidily articulated by McCutchen: “The pitchers went out there and did their jobs. The offense … we didn't do ours.”
That's it. Nothing else to it.
Let's dispel the myths already:
• This isn't Epic Collapse III.
This team isn't mentally collapsing, not now and not later. It's lost seven of nine, but if you're seeing some gag effect through all these tortured extra-inning affairs, we'll just have to disagree. As Clint Hurdle put it, “You play baseball because you love it, and we've had a lot of it to love. Just haven't always finished it.”
* This isn't about the manager.
Yes, Hurdle bunts too much, and the baserunning has taken a sharp turn for the worse this month. But the biggest part of managing is leading, and no one can question this team's effort or togetherness. And the biggest strategic part, as Jim Leyland used to say, is running the bullpen. This bullpen has been better than all the rest, and not by accident.
If this team hits even a little, Hurdle's name never comes up.
• This isn't about clutch hitting, for crying out loud.
The Pirates' problem can't be isolated as a failure to cash in scoring chances, and not just because advanced analysis powerfully supports that being clutch in baseball is simply doing what you'd normally do rather than some innate skill.
No, the problem is that they don't hit much, period. They're 25th in the majors in runs.
I'll repeat this figure for anyone who might have missed it in the Sunday column: The Pirates are 63-17 when they score three or more runs.
Which apparently was asking too much of this lineup over 16 innings, 53 at-bats that yielded only nine hits – one for extra bases! – as well as the requisite 18 strikeouts.
They don't hit much, period.
And I'll repeat this, too, only it's been found in this space all summer: That must change.
Neal Huntington had the offseason of a lifetime, and he deserves immense credit for the transformation that's taken place around here. But he, like Hurdle, like the players, is tasked with finishing the job after what happened the previous two summers.
That task is finding a bat.
It's now clearer than ever it won't be found from within. Not unless everyone's still counting on Garrett Jones, who looks so low on confidence he's making outs from the on-deck circle.
No, the bat's got to come from the outside and, for all the hype the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline gets, trades still can be made if players clear waivers until Aug. 31.
I don't know who all is on the waiver wire. That's rarely made public. But I do know that Justin Morneau, the Twins' 32-year-old first baseman and former American League MVP, was bypassed by all 30 teams last week. He's not what he was, but he's having a strong month.
Go get him. Or someone.
Aware that Huntington can't discuss specific players from other teams, I tried a couple questions Sunday of the general variety.
Are the Pirates still looking?
“Yes,” Huntington answered.
Is he optimistic a trade can happen?
“In years past, I might have said no, but there's been a lot of activity on waivers.”
Does bypassing a player on waivers mean the Pirates aren't interested in that player?
“No, not at all, but there are sometimes challenges that go into placing a claim or numerous claims.”
He then added: “And sometimes the challenge is the contract.”
Again, Huntington was giving a general answer to a general question. But at the same time, there's no earthly way that the Pirates should be thinking about cash at this point or scouring for discounts. Certainly not any discount on the $4 million Morneau is due the rest of this season. That's affordable in the worst of seasons, eminently affordable when PNC Park is packed night after night.
Open the wallet, get bold, and take a swing. The latter alone will be more than what most of the Pirates were doing Sunday.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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