Thursday, August 28, 2014

Bucs still battlin'

Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, 9:20 p.m.
 Long Davis homer lifts Pirates over Cardinals 3-1
Pittsburgh Pirates' Ike Davis (15) celebrates with teammates in the dugout after hitting a two-run home run off St. Louis Cardinals' starting pitcher Adam Wainwright during the second inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Clint Hurdle has become a limping metaphor for this Pirates season. He moves around slowly, painfully, because of a bad hip. But he gets there. He keeps showing up.

So does Andrew McCutchen, who walked through the clubhouse with a giant wrap on his midsection after a 3-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday. McCutchen played despite leaving the previous night's game on account of his still-unhealed rib fracture acting up.

Ike Davis keeps showing up, too, and in his case, that is notable more from the mental angle. Davis recently lost his job. He could have sulked or sagged. Instead, he stayed ready and rose to the occasion, big-time, each of the past two days.

Davis won the game with a home run Tuesday and on his next swing — in the second inning Wednesday — provided the Pirates with all the runs they'd need by smashing an Adam Wainwright offering nearly to PPG Place.
So here we are, eight days removed from a seven-game losing streak, and the Pirates are peg-legging their way into September with everything still in play — including the NL Central.

I'm just not sure how.

All the injuries. All the adversity. This easily could have been an obituary. The Brewers and Cardinals were poised to bury this team. But the Pirates hit like crazy at Miller Park and pitched like crazy against the Cardinals. And maybe the law of averages said they had to play better.

But is there something more at play with this club? Is there something to the ideas of “chemistry” and “toughness” and “resilience?” That's an honest question. I don't know. I don't want to overdo that stuff, either. But I also don't want to discount it just because it cannot be quantified.

Is something beyond the numbers at least worth exploring here?

McCutchen believes so. So does Hurdle.

“I think if you just want to cut to the chase, it's called grit,” Hurdle said. “We've got a lotta grit. We don't have a perfect club. We don't play perfect. I don't manage perfect. … But we believe in each other, trust each other. And these guys love to play, just flat-out love to play.”

Sabermetricians might laugh at such statements. I can't. Not when I know how much the mental side of the game can crush teams. Take the Pirates of 2011 and '12. The weight of history, I believe, played a role in those two clubs crumbling.

This team has the experience of slaying those 20-year-old dragons last year and maybe a bunch of other attributes that go beyond OPS+, xFIP or any other advanced metric on the market — all of which hold enormous value but might not tell the whole story.

If a team can have a collective state of mind, the Pirates appear to have an awfully positive one. A present one, too.

“You play this game long enough, you learn that if you hold on to past things that weren't good, that weight is always going to be on you,” reliever Jared Hughes said. “A big thing is to keep on hitting the refresh button. As Clint says, ‘Be where your feet are.' ”

So maybe it matters what kind of tone the manager sets. Maybe it matters when a pitcher has enough confidence in his catcher to add a slider to his repertoire, as Hughes did in the offseason on Russell Martin's suggestion.

Can that kind of thing be measured?

Maybe it matters when your best player shows up ready to play even though everybody knows how badly he's hurting.

“That's another side of it: a toughness, an ability to man up and get it done when things aren't going great,” Hughes said. “We have a lot of really tough guys. Cutch maybe being the toughest.”

Maybe it matters when a guy doesn't moan about lost playing time but continues to prepare for his moment.
As Davis said after the game regarding his situation, “Don't cry about stuff; just play better. Keep going.”
Why does this team seem to have the ability to pull the rope together?

“It's maturity, I think,” Davis said. “Some people are selfish, and we don't have a lot of people like that in our locker room.”

That doesn't mean it's always Kumbaya. During the seven-game skid, Davis recalled, “It was a little chippy in here. Losing 7 in a row, things that don't normally agitate you might agitate you a little. But we stayed the course.”

I don't know. Maybe it's a bunch of bologna, this talk of intangibles. But as I watched Hurdle limp across the room before the game to show me an apparently authentic pirate dagger sitting on a table in his office, I wondered.

The dagger, given to him by a friend, sits in a case inscribed with the word “Finish.” Hurdle doesn't ascribe any special meaning to that.

I will. I'll relate it to how the Pirates are likely to fight for the final 29 games.

And that's your final metaphor of the day.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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