PITTSBURGH — The Major League Baseball season is long. Very long. 162 games over seven months is a physical grind, but it’s also a mental one. Almost every day brings team meetings, video sessions, batting practice, hitting sessions, workouts and any other number of activities that help professionals prepare to play the game at a high level.
Sometimes, it can get a bit monotonous. Sometimes, a change — any change — can shake a player up enough mentally to make a difference.
Having said that, there are probably a host of reasons’ for Andrew McCutchen’s breakout two-home run performance that powered the Pirates to a 6-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers Saturday night. But the first one he mentioned was his new walk-up music. Seriously.
“For starters, the Adele walk-up song felt real good,” he said. “It had me feeling good, vibing, going up to bat.”
Of course, the first time he was up there “vibing,” Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda struck him out on an almost-silly looking offering at an 0-2 slider. McCutchen went to school, but it wasn’t necessarily on any of the five-pitch mix that Maeda was offering. Instead, it was about the circumstance.
“I learned a good lesson: the strike zone is still the same,” he said. “I learned that pretty quick. I had to make an adjustment, and that was to get a pitch to hit and hit it, don’t fall into that two strike hole again. I didn’t and was able to put the barrel on the ball.”
He turned on a hanging breaking ball for a solo shot in the fourth inning and then sent a Maeda fastball into the left field bleachers for a game-breaking three-run blast in the sixth. It was his best offensive performance since April and raised his season slugging average 23 points — a difficult feat at the end of June.
It’s been a trying month for McCutchen, who had a .192/.259/.256 triple-slash line in June coming into Saturday’s game. He’s been putting in extra work to try to straighten things out.
“That’s what we do,” he said. “We work every day. We just hope that the results will get there. It’s not like I’m sitting around just hoping things change. I’m going out there trying to get things done and get things turned over. Tonight was a good night and I’ll be able to go from here.”
In going from there, McCutchen said he felt that his big night could be a way forward to more success.
“Of course it’s helpful,” he said. “Oh-for-100, that ain’t helping. It’s good to put some hits on the board and not only get some hits but some big hits. It felt good to be able to get a pitch to hit and square it up. That’s what it’s been about: get a pitch to hit and hit it. I was able to do that a couple times tonight.”
While McCutchen was lighting up the North Shore skyline with fireworks, starting pitcher Jeff Locke had the crowd buzzing with a perfect game through five innings. He gave up a lead-off double to Scott Van Slyke in the sixth, but it was nonetheless another outstanding start for Locke. He finished seven innings with one run on five hits and no walks.
It was the second consecutive solid start for Locke, who went 6.2 scoreless innings against the San Francisco Giants on Monday. There were a couple of constant themes. Locke didn’t walk a single batter in either of the starts and he got solid defense in both, as well, allowing him to pitch to contact.
“”It was a good game,” Locke said. “[Catcher Erik] Kratz and I were on the same page. I made some good pitches. Defense played unbelievable again behind me, like they always do. They’re an aggressive lineup, so it’s either a lot of hits or a lot of outs when teams are aggressive. Today, we got a lot of outs, so it was a good team effort.”
I asked Locke how much he is involved with the defensive positioning and how it affects what he does on the mound. Instead, he said it’s more like the opposite.
“In years past, when we would shift on [hitters], a lot of it was tailored to what they do — if they hit the ball to the left side or if they hit the ball to the right side,” Locke said. “Now, it’s a little bit more tailored to the pitcher on the mound. Not just what that guy does at the plate but if I do this, then we’re doing that. They kind of tailored the defense to my style of pitching. There’s a lot of outs out there that hitters don’t like to have. I guess that comes down to executing the pitch, too. I’m only half of it. He’s gotta put the bat on it weakly, or in some cases tonight, they hit the ball really hard and we were standing right there.”
Hurdle credited the team’s analytics department for coming up with the defensive solutions that have allowed Locke to pitch to contact, and as a result, become a more efficient pitcher.
“We give our guys credit because we’ve had a handful of games this year where all the balls hit on the ground are outs,” Hurdle said. “We were in really good spots. … Our analytics guys [Dan Fox and Mike Fitzgerald] on top setting the defense have been very, very strong.”
The other common thread has been the command, and according to Hurdle, it’s not just about the lack of walks, either.
“It’s first-pitch strikes, it’s getting ahead in counts, working quick and pitch efficiency,” Hurdle said. “That’s been the recipe for games that we’ve seen him do this.”
• Jordy Mercer also had a home run, a two-run shot in the sixth.
• Gregory Polanco did not play for the second consecutive day. The team still hasn’t given an update on his condition.
• The Pirates had a streak of 105 innings without an error snapped when Sean Rodriguez overthrew A.J. Schugel when the latter was covering first base in the ninth inning. Rodriguez had entered the game as a defensive replacement for John Jaso.
• Chad Kuhl is the expected to make his Major League debut on the mound Sunday. He has not officially been added to the roster yet and the Pirates will have to clear a spot on the 40-man to select his contract. He will face Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw at 8:08 p.m.