Where most saw misery and chaos, Clint Hurdle saw something else entirely.
The day Hurdle took over as the Pittsburgh Pirates manager in December 2010, he spoke about electrifying the city. He preached optimism then went out and practiced it every day while talking about a vision that went far beyond returning a moribund franchise to respectability.
It’s why Hurdle isn’t satisfied after leading Pittsburgh to a 94-68 record and its first playoff berth in 21 years. It’s why he doesn’t view tonight’s wild-card game against Cincinnati as the culmination of three years of patience, progress and pragmatism.
Press Hurdle on how detailed he allowed his vision to get and he leans forward for emphasis.
“To win a sixth World Series,” he said.
First things first.
The team that spent all summer defying expectations now must find a way to do it again when it hosts the first playoff game in Pittsburgh in 7,660 days. Coming off a weekend sweep in Cincinnati that gave the Pirates home-field advantage for the one-and-done wild card, Pittsburgh has to press reset while trying not to get caught up in the kind of hype not seen in the city since Barry Bonds bolted for San Francisco 21 years ago.
“What happened over the weekend,” Hurdle said, “doesn’t matter.”
Neither does the six months that came before it, though Hurdle believes his team has all the hallmarks required to make sure this postseason appearance will extend beyond a cameo.
“I like the grit factor,” he said, “and the lessons we’ve learned.”
Lessons hard won on a roster that is baseball’s version of Ellis Island, a mixture of veterans looking to revive their careers and an exciting young core that includes MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and ace-in-training Gerrit Cole.
Perhaps it’s fitting that left-hander Francisco Liriano (16-8, 3.02 ERA) will start the team’s most important game in a generation. Allowed to walk in free agency after an underwhelming stint with the Chicago White Sox in 2012, the Pirates signed Liriano to a two-year deal last winter that turned out to be one of the best bargains in baseball.
Fueled by a slightly overhauled delivery and a devastating slider, Liriano rediscovered the form that made him an All-Star in 2006. Even more, he’s found a home in a clubhouse that wasn’t always the most welcoming in the majors.
“In the beginning, when people came here, it was more of a rehabilitation center,” McCutchen said. “I mean it’s true. Guys came here toward the end of their career, saying this is going to boost them up, maybe they can have a big year so they can go somewhere else.”
Not so much anymore.
The arrival of pitcher A.J. Burnett in 2012 and catcher Russell Martin last winter signaled a sea change. Both players have World Series rings. Both still had something to prove. Both wanted to be part of something significant.
They weren’t alone. Former AL MVP Justin Morneau agreed to leave the Minnesota Twins after a decade to spend the final month of the season in Pittsburgh. Journeyman outfielder Marlon Byrd raced from New York to PNC Park for a chance to reach the postseason for the first time in his 12-year career.
Their paths, much like Liriano’s, shadows the franchise’s fall and subsequent rise. Once considered one of the game’s future stars, Liriano spent five years searching for a new identity after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2007. He’s found one in a ballpark where he is 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA this season.
“He’s a Pirate,” Hurdle said. “There’s a lot of Pirate in every guy in there. They’ve got a flawed manager though.”
Maybe, but one that has proven to be a perfect fit in Pittsburgh. Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, Hurdle believes his team has turned a corner.
The Reds – equipped with postseason experience, as they’ve made the NL playoffs three times since 2010 – will try to make sure the Pirates have to wait another year before taking the next step. Cincinnati spent much of the season as the third team in a three-way race with St. Louis and Pittsburgh for the NL Central title.
Despite looking lifeless at times down the stretch, the Reds received a jolt by the return of right-hander Johnny Cueto. The 27-year-old missed most of the season with back problems but has been solid since his return on Sept. 16. The Reds are also likely to have in their lineup Brandon Phillips, their star second baseman who left Saturday’s game with a leg injury.
Cueto – with less on the line of course – has been clutch vs. the Pirates. He is 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA in 21 career starts against Pittsburgh, numbers that are even better at PNC Park, where he is 8-2 with a 1.90 ERA.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Cueto said. “I just do my job.”
If he can find a way to do it one more time, the Reds will play in St. Louis on Thursday. If not, baseball’s unlikeliest success story will continue, just the way Hurdle envisioned.
“I think we’re a perfect snapshot of our city,” Hurdle said. “We’re not perfect. We get down, we’re going to get up. We get knocked down again, we’re going to get up again.
“We’ll continue to fight for what we believe in.”
Where most saw misery and chaos, Clint Hurdle saw something else entirely.
Pirates power past Brewers
Andrew McCutchen hit his first homer of the season and drove in three runs, Pedro Alvarez had a three-run shot and pinch-hitter Josh Harrison broke a tie with a long ball in the seventh inning as the Pittsburgh Pirates handed the Milwaukee Brewers their first road loss, 11-2 on Thursday night.
Harrison’s two-run drive down the left field line off Rob Wooten (0-1) was the second of his career as a pinch hitter.
Jackets preparing for Game 2
The Columbus Blue Jackets don’t feel they’re doomed after blowing a two-goal lead in a Game 1 loss of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It’s not about missed chances, or feeling sorry about it,” goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky said at Thursday’s optional workout, 13 hours after falling 4-3 in Pittsburgh.
Jennerstown Speedway gearing for May open
Jennerstown Speedway released a very ambitious schedule on its website and continues to prepare for its 2014 reopening.
The track is set to hold a practice day for drivers as well as an open house and media day on April 26.
Dominant Cueto drops Pirates in matinee
That playoff loss in Pittsburgh last year? Johnny Cueto never thought about it much. So getting a chance to shut out the Pirates in a rematch wasn’t any more special.
Penguins rally to wear out Jackets
Brandon Sutter scored on a wrist shot from the left circle 8:18 into the third period, helping the Pittsburgh Penguins rally for a 4-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Wednesday night.
Beau Bennett and Matt Niskanen scored power-play goals 45 seconds apart in the second period, erasing Pittsburgh’s two-goal deficit.
Series serves as reunion for former Chiefs personnel
Not so long ago, Bob McElligott, like most Western Pennsylvania hockey fans, would savor a long Pittsburgh Penguins playoff run.
The Somerset native followed the Pens’ Stanley Cup-winning teams in 1991 and 1992.
Malkin nearing return
The Columbus Blue Jackets are the closest NHL team to the Pittsburgh Penguins, at least geographically. The two franchises are separated by 185 miles of highway.
Reds swing way past Pirates
Mike Leake doubled and hit a two-run homer Tuesday night, ending Gerrit Cole's winning streak and leading the Cincinnati Reds to a 7-5 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates that completed two days full of homers and delays.
First, the NL Central rivals completed a game that was suspended in the sixth inning because of rain the previous night.
Pirates edge out Reds in suspended game
After all those home runs and an overnight delay, it was settled by a single.
Andrew McCutchen doubled and came around on Russell Martin’s single in the seventh inning on Tuesday, giving the Pittsburgh Pirates an 8-7 victory over the Cincinnati Reds in the completion of a game that spanned two days and 10 home runs.
Pressure on Penguins to capture Cup
The statistics are gaudy.
And if the Pittsburgh Penguins can’t find a way to extend their season into the final days of spring, ultimately forgettable.
The same team that led the NHL in man games lost due to injury (more than 500) also earned 109 points, led the Metropolitan Division from mid-October on and received another peerless effort from star Sidney Crosby, who topped the league with 104 points and is a near lock for the second MVP award of his career.
- More Pro Headlines
- Pirates power past Brewers