Clint Hurdle is only in his second season as the Pirates Manager, but he’s already got his club believing.
“I’ve tried to encourage,” Hurdle said. “I’ve tried to get these young men to believe in something they can’t see. To know it can be pretty cool when you get a group of guys together that all have the same thought, or the same goal and really nobody cares who gets the credit. You can have a lot of fun along the way. We’re heading in the right direction. We’ve got a lot of work to do but I believe we’re better right now than when we started the 2011 season.”
When Hurdle took over in 2011, he inherited the club’s 18-year losing streak. Throughout last season, at any point the club was flirting with .500 the answer was always the same. The focus, Hurdle said, was on winning the National League Central and building a Championship team.
“They’re not caring the history of being of under .500 for 18 years,” Hurdle said. “They don’t carry that. They know the history, they’re aware of the history. Last year, they got to see both sides of it. I do think the experience is helping us move forward this year. I do think the experience of going through the challenges of last season of playing good competitive baseball against good teams, that all is helping. I really believe we are prepared for our future through our past if we’ve paid attention. I’m getting the feeling more so that there are a number of men out there that have paid attention.”
But it’s not just the men in the clubhouse he’s got believing. He’s also got the fans starting to believe as well. Just this past home stand against Detroit, the ballpark was packed. Friday and Saturday were sellouts and the 111,878 fans that came out to see the Pirates win 2-of-3 was the fifth highest three date series in PNC Park history. While watching from the clubhouse, Hurdle was ejected after arguing on a check swing call during Casey McGehee’s at bat, the skipper described atmosphere as being electric.
“To see the TV’s panning the stands, the people behind the stands, the boats. Just the activity,” Hurdle said after the game on Sunday. “Everybody out on the rotunda. The amount of Pirate garb and bling and the flags. Hoist the colors. Raise the Jolly Roger. It was really cool to have that…It was a big weekend in our season.”
Hurdle believes the experience of last season has made a positive effect on the club this year. The Pirates stood a top the standings in the Central as late in the season as July 25, until Pittsburgh lost in 19 innings on a controversial plate at the plate in Atlanta. They never again saw first place and went on to lose 43 of their final 62 games. The Pirates went on to win more than 70 games for the first time since 2004 and showed a 15-game improvement — their largest increase in wins since 1996.
“I think it’s added experience, it’s added maturity,” Hurdle said. “These guys are a little bit longer in the tooth. They were able to go through a season, experience success, experience failure, experience heartache, experience good times. How they channel through that, what their walkway is on where we need improve, where do I need to improve individually.”
“One of the things I challenged them with when they went out the door in their exit interviews was the best way for us to better next year is for you to show up better. If every individual player shows up better, our team will be better. It’s pretty easy. But they took the challenge for what it was, to show up and improve the facet of the game. It’s something that we revisit from time to time. They’ve taken that to heart. We’re just trying to keep the game simple. Pitch it well, catch it well, find a way to score one more run then the other team.”
While they are ranked No. 29 in baseball this season on offense — with just a .231 combined team average — the bats have heated up in the month of June. They are hitting .259, which is No. 14 in the Majors, while ranking seventh in home runs (29), fourth in stolen bases (21) and seventh in runs (109). Their pitching has been impressive all season, keeping the team in the hunt even when the bat’s were cold. Pittsburgh’s team 3.43 ERA is fourth best in the Majors this season.
Many were skeptic that the Pirates were playing in over their heads last season and that 2011 was just a fluke. Pittsburgh was once again expected to finish near the bottom of their division, but once again, the club is proving people wrong.
Entering game action, the Pirates are 38-35, three over .500. They’ve been a season-high five over and were tied at the top of the NL Central standings as recently as last week. The Pirates were 36-37 after 73 games last season.
“There’s a lot of things that get said externally,” Hurdle said. “That’s why I don’t have the time, nor am I going to put forth the effort. We are what we are. Popeye said it best. ‘I am what I am, and that’s all that I am.’ Many guys say we’re better than our record. Well, no you’re not. Your record tells you where you are. We’re just trying to fight this thing one game at a time and play it one game at a time.”
“You earn what you earn up here. You don’t win games unless you deserve to win games at this level. Anybody that says differently usually has a lack of respect for the game, or they are just taking the talent pool and I don’t think they are giving it enough credit. Can you over achieve? That’s a tough question. How do you tell men when they’re winning game you’re really not that good you’re just over achieving? That just really doesn’t make much sense to me. The bigger picture is the consistency and being able to sustain it over time. Do I feel a different vibe in the clubhouse from this year to last year? Yes, absolutely.”
The vibe and chemistry in the clubhouse shows. Pedro Alvarez and Rod Barajas were recently wearing t-shirts that said the words ‘believe’ with the Zoltan hand symbol below it. The ‘Z” is flashed when a player drives an RBI hit or a home run, showing that this team is embracing the ride. They also have yellow cutoff tee’s that say ‘Prepare for Domination’ — veteran A.J. Burnett’s team motto.
What also could be a telling sign that things just might be different for the Pirates? The Pirates have spent 76 days .500 or better from last season and 2012 combined. The seven years prior, the club combined for just 71.
That stat, when brought up to Hurdle during his pregame press conference on Sunday, shocked him.
“I had no clue about all that,” he said. “But is it tangible evidence that it’s getting better? I think it is.”