Wednesday, July 13, 2011

No Retreat, No Surrender

OK, everyone's pumped about the three Buccos in the All-Star game. But what's really got everyone pumped is the team's performance going into the break.

Hey, gotta give the players credit. A couple of guys are carrying the team day in and day out, and for the most part, the plug-ins aren't embarrassing themselves at the MLB level. So props to the FO and scouts, who after three draft classes and countless dives into the dumpster have built the feeder system to at least replacement level.

But if the Pirates had to pick an MVP today, it would have to be Clint Hurdle. At first, we were concerned when he built a staff that mostly had deep roots in the organization. Our fear was that he would be too much the FO's man.

But now it just looks like a smart move by a man who has enough confidence in himself to pick the brains of the people who know the Pirate young 'uns. And there's no fear of him being a company man; his handprints are all over personnel decisions for the big club, something JR appeared removed from during his stay.

As an X and O manager, he has his strengths and weaknesses. He preaches smart and aggressive base running, and has the aggressive part down pat with his team. The smart, well, that's a work in progress. Hurdle bunts like he gets a bonus for every ball laid down; we'd like to see him hit-and-run or steal a base more often in certain situations rather than waste the at-bat.

His lineups are sometimes head scratchers. But that's often because his choices are so limited in trying to build a middle for his order; you can't bat everyone sixth, seventh and eighth.

Hurdle does a masterful job of handling his staff. Sometimes he lets a starter hang around too long, and puts a pup out of the pen into a higher-leverage situation than you'd expect. But if you want your starters to go deep into games and your relievers to grow, that's just the ticket, and that's also his message since day one. His words and actions are one and the same.

And that's where Clint Hurdle really shines. His mantra has been threefold: play the game right, play the season a game at a time, and play with a belief in yourself. It's not often that the skipper is the locker room leader, but Hurdle comes as close as any manager we've seen in town to being the man, along with Jim Leyland and Chuck Tanner. It's because of the consistency in his approach.

His team plays hard for him, and when they don't, he gets their attention. Hey, everybody sits Ronny Cedeno down at some point, but when McCutch is sent to detention hall, well, that's a lesson in accountability that no one on the roster - or organization - can miss.

If you're not playing up to par, he doesn't hesitate to plug in somebody else. Just ask Cedeno, Garrett Jones or Lyle Overbay. He rewards good play both in the lineup and in the media, and the players know that he's got their back if they give him the effort he wants.

The hardest thing in sports is to get players to wear blinders and blot out yesterday and tomorrow. A six game losing streak, a couple of weeks of scoring just once or twice per game, an ugly gift-wrapped loss or a blow-out defeat would have sent the old Bucs into a season-killing tailspin. Now it's just "OK, we'll go get 'em tomorrow." That's a combination of a leader who doesn't panic and a team that's beginning to mature as big league players.

The true sea change on the team has been the confidence and swagger they play with now. With the rash of injuries, Pittsburgh had a ready-made excuse to fold their tent. But Hurdle has the players convinced that they wear a jersey that says "Pirates" because they're major league players whose time has come and not just temporary help.

Being able to communicate that isn't easy, but if there's one thing Hurdle can do, and pretty loudly, it's keep his boys in the loop. And that prevents the potholes that sprout every season from becoming canyons.

He's had help along the way from the evaluators. Paul Maholm, Jeff Karstens and Joel Hanrahan have been stalwarts on the hill, and the rest of the rotation has been fairly dependable, so much so that Ohlie may find himself in the pen when he comes back. Jose Veras, Chris Resop and Daniel McCutchen have effectively covered the loss of Evan Meek. Ray Searage has helped immensely, not just by opening two-way lines of communication but by allowing the pitchers to work to their strengths. Joe Kerrigan and Jeff Andrews he ain't.

The defense has been quite solid behind the pitch-to-contact staff, and that's because the starting eight were, for the first time during the Neal Huntington era, in place by Opening Day. The replacement guys have generally been decent with the glove and quick rather than plodders, which plays into Hurdle's preferred style. McCutch, Neil Walker and Jose Tabata had gotten their feet wet already. So he walked into a situation where some pieces were in place and a little organizational depth had been developed.

But this is still very much a team in transition with holes to patch, and nowhere near the club they should be talent-wise a couple of years down the road. But the players on the field are going hard all nine innings every day, and if the pitching holds up, it'll make for a very interesting second half of the season and finally provide a launching pad for the future.

Bruce Springsteen stole a line from the skipper when he sang: "No retreat, no surrender." That's Clint Hurdle baseball, and Pittsburgh is lovin' it.

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