By Rob Rossi
Andrew McCutchen (Photo: Gene J. Puskar, AP)
Little things make all the difference for winners. There was Andrew McCutchen on Sunday morning, sitting in front of his clubhouse stall at PNC Park, taking off his headphones to seemingly eavesdrop on a conversation between fellow outfielders Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco.
McCutchen probably didn't know what they were saying, as Marte and Polanco spoke in their native tongues. However, laughter is a universal language, and theirs did not appear to sit well with McCutchen.
As he stood, McCutchen's head turned right toward Polanco. While turning around to face the open room, McCutchen's head spun leftward for a quick glance at Marte.
The laughter stopped, and McCutchen — a large ice pack strapped to his left side by athletic wrap — half-smiled as he walked away.
The Pirates aren't going to fall apart for the third time in four summers. They might lose a third consecutive game when opening a series Friday night at Washington. They might not make the playoffs.
A collapse isn't coming though, and that's because the Pirates' culture has changed.
Just look at their record (5-5) without McCutchen, the best player in a City of Champions. Actually, look first at what McCutchen is doing even though he can't play because of that busted up left side.
The adage is leaders can't lead from the bench. That might be why TV cameras rarely catch McCutchen sitting there since he was injured. He's up, talking, doing, as manager Clint Hurdle likes to say, “what Andrew does.”
Jordy Mercer calls McCutchen “our heart and soul,” and it's become obvious he takes that role to heart with all his soul.
Nobody within the Pirates can believe seeing McCutchen swinging, long-tossing, sprinting and doing who knows what when in the weight room. Everybody knows he is dealing with pain that has sabotaged his sleep, crippled his comfort and made it hard to even tap the radio tab on the car's touchscreen.
It's as though McCutchen is telling teammates, “I'm still going after it, so the rest of you better, too.”
The Pirates are going after it. That's what they do now. It's who they've become.
General manager Neal Huntington isn't the type to take a bow, but he should for what he's done to toughen up his organization. His players are better prepared physically and mentally to handle the punishment that is always absorbed during a 162-game season.
Whatever Huntington's baseball staff is doing at various levels throughout the organization is working with the precision of a military exercise. The gold “P” might as well stand for “prevail.”
Hurdle excels at the most important part of his job. He sets the tone.
He has imposed upon players a combination of confidence and defiance that make it the expectation to turn the page after losses like the one Thursday afternoon at Detroit.
“Why shouldn't we keep winning?” Mercer said.
OK, so every athlete says that during trying times. Mercer said that five times during a two-minute conversation last weekend.
So what about the injuries to McCutchen and Neil Walker, who is a rare professional hitter in the days of free-swinging baseball? Injuries happen. In fact, they provide opportunities for others.
Removing Pedro Alvarez from the lineup was the right move and might be again if the Pirates get healthy. Until then, kudos to Hurdle for holding Alvarez accountable to make the throws so that he has the chances to bash some baseballs.
Winners work through the hard times. Francisco Liriano knows what that's all about. Alvarez is figuring it out.
The Pirates are not perfect, and that might cost them a playoff spot.
Their lineup is weakened. Their starters are unpredictable. Their bullpen is down to three reliable relievers. Their base running and fielding are bewildering and sometimes just plain bad. They're playing the toughest part of the schedule without their MVP (McCutchen) and the young stud pitcher who picked them up around this time a year ago (Gerrit Cole).
Other Pirates teams have succumbed to a lot less. This club, even if it comes up short, won't have succumbed to anything.
The Pirates stopped losing last summer.
Now they're pushing on like winners, and that means a lot more.
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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