Pittsburgh Pirates and Loyal Fanbase Primed for Postseason in Steel City
After the Pittsburgh Pirates' 161st game of the regular season on Saturday in Cincinnati, Andrew McCutchen shared some interesting words.
"I think [Saturday] showed how bad we wanted to go home," McCutchen told Michael Sanserino of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The center fielder's postgame sentiments, taken out of context, might seem better fit for a team that would rather skip its 162nd game to get a head start on another absence from the postseason.
On Saturday, however, the Pittsburgh Pirates clinched home-field advantage for the Wild Card Game with an 8-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds.
Their National League MVP candidate was summarizing the feelings of his teammates, coaching staff, executives and patient fanbase.
The Bucs didn't win the NL Central and they hadn't yet secured a five-game postseason series. But they have guaranteed themselves at least a sudden-death fight to play in the divisional series and, win or lose, they will stage it in front of their eager, playoff-parched home crowd.
Manager Clint Hurdle explained to Sanserino, "The important part for me is getting these guys home to play in a park where we won 50 games and giving our fans a taste of postseason baseball...That's significant for me."
This is Pittsburgh's first baseball postseason in 21 years, and Tuesday evening will mark the first playoff game in PNC Park's young history. Both are long awaited and much deserved.
McCutchen went on to say, "It's better to be home than on the road...That's the way I look at it. That's all that needs to be said about it."
But in a town where the number of years without October baseball matched the legal drinking age, there is definitely more to be said about the enormity of Tuesday's game at PNC Park.
Whether you've secured your space aboard the S.S. Bandwagon or you're a Pittsburgh native and fan who has been in a stupor of disbelief since April, here are a few background glimpses into how the Pirates have survived the hard times and have flourished into 2013, why their run is already a true underdog success story and what a win Tuesday would mean for this franchise and this city.
A Cautiously Optimistic Owner: Bob Nutting Has Been Patient
"My nature is to worry," said current Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting on Sunday to J. Brady McCollough of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "As excited as I am about this year, I'm just concerned about keeping this high level of performance for years to come."
That is the tone of a caring, cautious owner who invested in the team's future, waited through a terrible second half of the past decade, and just watched his team go 94-68, the first season above .500 since 1992.
Former owner Kevin McClatchy had taken over control back in 1996. Facing mounting pressure to field a winning team and lacking the investors necessary to remain afloat, McClatchy enlisted Nutting's father, a Pittsburgh-based newspaper owner. McClatchy led the movement for the controversial construction of PNC Park by 2001, which was ultimately funded publicly. But in the early 2000s the PNC Park on-field display was an utter debacle.
In the inaugural season, 2001, the Pirates went 62-100. In 2002 they went 72-89, in 2003 they went 75-87 and, in 2004, 72-89.
Ownership handed out enormous contracts with the intention to win immediately; the plans backfired, franchise centerpieces were traded and the team was stuck in purgatory between cleaning the slate to rebuild and keeping pieces in place.
As McCollough explains, by that 2004 season, Bob Nutting and his father had bought out numerous limited partners and accumulated enough shares to become part of the Pirates' board of directors. As a result, Bob became an active voting member.
In 2005 and 2006, the Buccos went 67-95. In 2007, Bob Nutting took over as the principal owner. McCollough quotes a reminiscent McClatchy, "I was becoming...the expression might be burnt out...It was the right time for a handoff, and it wasn't at all one-sided."
To read between the lines, McClatchy's goal of immediate success at the expense of developing a foundational, long-term plan had waned.
The new owner would exhibit a patience that angered many of the faithful fans, but his trust would pay off down the line.
Nutting explained his vision (via McCollough):
If you're going to put the institution first, you have to make decisions as though you were going to be there forever...That is an important part of the approach. The decisions to build an academy in the Dominican Republic, to invest in the amateur draft in the U.S., to invest in facilities in Bradenton, none of those decisions impacted the Pirates in '07, '08, '09, but all those things were the right thing to do for the organization if you're committed to being here for the long haul.
In 2007 the Pirates went 68-94, in 2008, 67-95, in 2009 they went 62-99, in 2010, 57-105 and the trend continually worsened. In 2011 they went 72-90 and, last season, they brushed with the postseason and with .500 but fell short at 79-83.
You could say any amount of time, or "long haul," was worth the wait for 2013.
A Timely General Manager: Much-Maligned Neal Huntington Has Stayed the Course
"We were willing to do something stupid...We just didn't want to do something insane," Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington recently told Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in reference to the July 2013 trade deadline.
During his six-year tenure, Huntington has made many more poor decisions and enemies than intelligent ones and friends. However, much like the ownership, perseverance in philosophy and goals has paid off in 2013.
In 2007, Huntington became the 12th man to head the front office in Pirates history. At his introduction (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) he said: "I think there is a tremendous opportunity here with the Pittsburgh Pirates...We're going to change the culture. We're going to change how we do things. Every one of our decisions will be a progressive process in bringing a winner back to Pittsburgh."
Though, similar to the team's win column, Pittsburgh's attempts at success were disappointing in the past few years, and most of the "experiments" brought in by Huntington were soon gone (in recent memory: Jose Contreras—released, Brandon Inge—DFA, Jonathan Sanchez—released, Mike Zagurski—DFA).
He has outright angered fans and players since 2007.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Owner Bob Nutting even strongly considered firing Huntington following the epic second-half collapse in 2012. The owner said, "We considered all kinds of alternatives."
Bill Brink sums it up:
He has received heaps of abuse during his six years as Pirates GM. Some of it was deserved, some not. Through it, he has not wavered in his belief in what he was doing and what he was building. He is unassuming in public, driven and aggressive in private. He remains steadfast in his philosophies.
Huntington's quick turnaround was a simple, and aggressive, step-by-step success. The Pirates needed a new shortstop; two years and $10.5 million for Clint Barmes (prior to the 2012 season). Pittsburgh needed a solid defensive catcher who could provide offensive help as well; enter Russell Martin for two years and $17 million. They needed a starting pitcher; their No. 1 target was Francisco Liriano—enter Tuesday night's starter, who received a one-year deal with an option.
Then, following the 2013 waiver deadline, Huntington went out and picked up Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau.
The late-season pieces have fit with the outstanding year from McCutchen, the breakout season for third baseman Pedro Alvarez and a pitching staff that has four 10-win hurlers and the third-lowest team ERA in MLB.
If nothing else, it was a cunning and timely 2013 for a GM who had been on the hot seat as late as this summer, hoping to steer the Pirates away from their usual daunting conclusion.
It seems to have all meshed at the right moment.
The Right Manager: Quintessential Skipper Clint Hurdle's Road to Pittsburgh
One of the hallmarks of this Pittsburgh Pirates team is its skipper, Clint Hurdle. He is an endearing, passionate, positive, quirky and quotable figure in the clubhouse and dugout.
MLB's Tom Singer explains Hurdle's unique character:
Hurdle-isms abound. When something extraordinary happens, "I didn't have that." He wants his players to "own that at-bat" and his pitchers to throw "with intent and conviction." Rookies are to "fear nothing, respect everything." Hurdle's players enhance their chances of succeeding in clutch situations by remembering "the game doesn't know that the game is important," meaning it doesn't change with the stakes.
Over the course of his managerial career and, as a result of a tumultuous personal life, one of his other habits has come in the form of sending inspirational messages and quotes via email to players and their families.
His playing days were mostly represented by severe letdown, however. As ESPN's Tom Friend explains:
As a player, Clint Hurdle was the wrong kind of happy. A daily six-pack of Budweiser will do that to you. He once shared an apartment with his Kansas City Royals teammate George Brett, until Brett kicked him out for raising too much hell.
It was the late 1970s/early 1980s, and Hurdle was on his way to being one of baseball's more memorable busts. In 1978, Sports Illustrated had famously put him on its cover next to the headline: "This Year's Phenom." Problem was, he was that year's .264 hitter.
Hurdle first became the Colorado Rockies hitting coach in 1997. He took over as manager in 2002 after Buddy Bell was fired. In 2007 he had his first magical year.
That season, Hurdle rallied (well, inspired) the lowly Rockies to take 13 of their final 14 games of the season to force a one-game playoff, which they won in the bottom of the 13th inning.
Although the Rockies would make it to the World Series, Hurdle's daughter had been simultaneously diagnosed with Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare disorder that prohibits one from monitoring appetite and the feeling of being full, and which can lead to obesity and death.
As Tom Friend explains, Clint's daughter Maddie encountered seizures and other illness, such as pneumonia, which she developed on the night his Rockies won the pennant.
"I was asked to rebuild a house in Colorado," explains Hurdle, regarding his team. "We got to the World Series. But one of the things that had to be rebuilt, along the way, was me."
After an awful start to 2009, Hurdle was fired. He became the Texas Rangers hitting coach in 2010, then, following the season, he was approached by the New York Mets and the Pirates to become manager.
"I thought this was the best upside opportunity in the game," Hurdle explained to MLB.com's Tom Singer on Sunday of his decision to choose Pittsburgh. "I asked a lot of people involved in the organization—and some people who'd left the organization, who will give you a little different perspective. So I felt I had as good an understanding as possible coming in."
Hurdle has shown an incredible ability to inspire his Pirates players, hold his younger talents accountable and always remain upbeat and positive.
Hurdle brought the Pirates from 57 wins in 2010 to 72 in 2011; in 2012 they won 79 ballgames.
As Singer expands, "The rising win totals of the previous two seasons, of course, camouflaged what were agonizing finishes. Yet the way Hurdle dealt with those collapses, remaining supportive and optimistic, has had a lot to do with this season's conversion."
Win or lose on Tuesday night, the Pirates believe in their manager and the fanbase has all the reason to do the same. Hurdle told Singer, "You got to manage the team for 25 men...and, at the end of the day, you make the decisions that you believe in, and you move on."
Pieces to the Puzzle: A Combination of Homegrown Talent and Big Pick-Ups
Entering the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates already possessed an exciting young core, some of whom they drafted and brought through their own ranks. Over the course of the summer and fall, they buoyed the rising talent with enormous free-agent signings in 2013 that helped sustain their success.
CF Andrew McCutchen
Cutch was the 11th overall pick by the Pirates in 2005. He made his debut in 2009 and, in just five seasons, has made three All-Star appearances (including 2013). His .317 batting average is the second-highest of his career, his on-base percentage was .404, his OPS was .912 and his 64 extra-base hits and 8.3 WAR (per ESPN) were his career bests.
His 8.3 wins above replacement, moreover, were third in MLB and have put him at the heart of the discussion in MVP voting.
3B Pedro Alvarez
The Pirates drafted El Toro second overall in 2008. He made his debut in 2010 and, after a hot end to the season, ultimately bounced between the majors and Triple-A for 2011. In 2012 Pedro showed improvement and signs of his much-scouted and beloved power, reaching the 30-home run mark and driving in 85 runs.
But 2013 is easily the young star's breakout season. Pedro has crushed 36 home runs, collected 100 RBI, competed in the Home Run Derby and made his first All-Star appearance.
C Russell Martin
A tremendous free-agent acquisition, Martin led all MLB catchers with 36 runners caught stealing and in fielding percentage. He finished the season second in dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) among catchers.
His contributions behind the dish speak for themselves. Trusting your catcher is tantamount entering each postseason game—especially a sudden-death play-in wild-card game.
RF Marlon Byrd
Byrd hit a career-high 24 home runs in 2013, showed off a .291 batting average and, after joining the Pirates after the waiver deadline, batted .318 in 30 games.
More significantly, 2013 is easily the veteran's best year in his 11-season career. He could win Comeback Player of the Year; he is in his first postseason and he's 36 years old.
In early September, Byrd told Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY Sports, "You put all those factors in...It's like, 'OK, how is he doing it? You're not supposed to be getting better with age?'"
SP Francisco Liriano
The left-hander accumulated a career-best 16 wins to eight losses, 3.02 ERA, a WHIP of 1.22 , and struck out 163 batters in 161 innings pitched.
Most importantly, he takes the hill in Tuesday's sudden-death game opposite Cincinnatti's Johnny Cueto.
SP A.J. Burnett
No disrespect to A.J. Burnett, who has completely turned his career around in small-market Pittsburgh, but he was an absolute head case and his own worst enemy on Broadway.
Burnett tied his career-low 3.30 ERA this season, posted a WHIP of 1.21, struck out 209 batters over 191 innings and earned his 10th win on Friday.
A.J., speaking to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday, lent due credit to pitching coach Ray Searage and the overwhelmingly positive effect he's had on the whole staff: "He's let me be myself. He's figured me out in the past year and a half...I've been around a lot of pitching coaches and I've had some great ones. Ray cares. He cares so much. He throws every pitch out there with us."
RP Mark Melancon
As the eighth-inning setup man prior to (and now after) Jason Grilli's injury, Melancon pitched 47.1 innings with a 0.95 ERA.
More significantly, when Grilli went down, Melancon played the hero. Despite five blown saves, Melancon's fill-in role for Grilli included converting 14 of 17 save opportunities while posting a 2.08 ERA (per CBS Sports).
RP Jason Grilli
The Pirates closer has been vital all season and could prove essential not only in the eighth and ninth innings on Tuesday, but in the end of future games should the Buccos scoot ahead into the Division Series.
Grilli has posted a 2.70 ERA and 33 saves, with 74 strikeouts and 13 walks over 50 innings.
Despite a forearm injury back in late July, Grilli was activated from the DL in early September and is slated to shut the door for the Pirates this postseason. His 33rd save came on Friday in Cincinnati.
PNC Park should be shaking on Tuesday night.
This fanbase, supremely proud of the Pittsburgh Pirates' storied history, are rabid with joy that the drought has come to a close—and they should play a huge factor in pushing their Bucs to a trip to St. Louis on Thursday.
"I was just over there two years ago," former Pirate and now-Red Ryan Ludwick said. "I know they're hungry. I know that city over there is hungry."
The Reds' right fielder Jay Bruce said, "Home-field advantage is important...Playing in front of your home fans is definitely advantageous. The records speak for themselves."
Coming into Tuesday, the Pirates are riding a three-game winning streak—on a sweep of Cincinnati at Great American Ball Park—and the Reds are on a five-game losing streak.
Cincinnati is 41-41 on the road in 2013 and the Pirates are 50-31 at PNC Park. In his career against the Pirates, Reds starter Johnny Cueto is 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA; at PNC he is an outstanding 8-2 with a 1.90.
Francisco Liriano is 8-1 at PNC this season with a 1.47 ERA.
The bottom line is that the Pirates are in uncharted territory and a loss would surely be disappointing. But given how far this team has come, the fact that they have brought October baseball back to the Steel City is a huge victory in and of itself.
But a win, and a resultant best-of-five-game series with their division-foe Cardinals?
There may be no stopping the electric Pirates right now and, to move forward from a win-or-go-home scenario, you have to believe they would have all the momentum heading to St. Louis.
GM Neal Huntington sounded excited but anxious (per Pittsburgh Post-Gazette): "I can't imagine how loud and how rocking [PNC Park] is going to be when we host a playoff game...They deserve it. They've earned it. And we're working to do everything we can to make sure they get not only one but they get a number of series of home playoff games."
With a win Tuesday, a long overdue city of Pittsburgh would raise the Jolly Roger in the month of October.