PITTSBURGH — If you’ve been on vacation for the month of July, let me bring you up to speed.
The Pirates have roared back from an awful June to win 12 out of their last 15 games. They’ve nearly run down the New York Mets for the final Wild Card and are now in hunting range of the division-leading Chicago Cubs at 6.5 games back.
In large part, they’ve done it with youth.
In that span, the Pirates have gotten production from Josh Bell, Steven Brault Adam Frazier, Tyler Glasnow, Chad Kuhl and Jameson Taillon — all of whom were with Triple-A Indianapolis at the beginning of June.
The youth movement has been a dramatic one and Pirates young and old have pointed to it as a reason for the team’s recent success. It’s a winning formula that manager Clint Hurdle has seen before.
“(It’s a) very similar situation to Colorado in 2007 when were calling up players and we had two rookies in the rotation, a rookie at shortstop and a rookie at closer. … They’d all grown up together through the minor leagues.
“You walk through the clubhouse and you see them. They’re all packed up and running together. It makes them more comfortable. It adds value to everything we do. These guys are Pirates. They’ve come up through our player development system. They’ve been together for a long time.”
Taillon has been in the system since 2010. Bell and Glasnow were drafted in 2011. Kuhl and Frazier came aboard in 2013. They’ve literally grown up together. As growing ball players, they shared dreams of moments that have now come true: first hits off Cy Young winners, grand slam home runs, wins over opponent aces.
“That’s what you dream of,” Taillon said. “Seriously, that’s why you do stick through all those tough years, long bus rides, the crummy hotels, that’s what it’s all about.”
Baseball prospects don’t all usually pan out. From an entire draft class, there’s usually only one or two players that ends up in the major-league level with the team that drafted them. Players get hurt, get traded, wash out. It’s obviously rewarding to be able to achieve goals that they have all had since childhood, but there’s something even more special about being able to do it together.
“It’s pretty cool,” agreed Frazier. “I’ve been playing with those guys for the last three years now. We all knew where we wanted to be. It just says a lot about our progression throughout the system. We couldn’t be happier to be where we are right now.”
“It started off in spring training.”
Those are Taillon’s words, but to man, the Pirates’ rookies cited their experience at Pirate City this spring as a reason for their successful seasons.
They were able to train with the big-league club, get to know the coaches, the staff, the players and the way things are done. It’s helped them focus on baseball in the midst of what can be a hectic transition from the minors.
“Being with these guys in spring training has really helped a lot just as far as being able to fit in with the personalities and how each guy goes about their business, how they prepare for the game and what guys you’re more confident with than others,” Frazier said. “I think that helped a lot.”
“You recognize all the faces, except for a couple,” Bell said of the ease of his inclusion into the big-league clubhouse. “It makes it that much more easy to put the jersey on and play for these guys.”
That time at Spring Training allowed the Pirates’ coaching staff to learn a thing or two about the players, as well, and it’s part of the reason that Hurdle and his staff have shown no qualms about thrusting them into pressure-packed situations.
“A very striking thing happened for me in Spring Training,” Hurdle recalled. “It was just about the group (of guys) that is here now, and they were all sitting at a breakfast table at 6:30 in the morning and I walked in, there was one chair, and I said ‘Who is that one for?’ and they said, ‘For you.’
“So I sat down. That was awesome. Six rookies, their first time at big-league camp. … That’s comfort, but it’s not the kind of comfort that’s taken for granted. They have self-confidence.”
‘IRON SHARPENS IRON’
Stashed in Triple-A to start the season, the group of players continued to grow and bond. They also formed the nucleus of a pretty good baseball team. The Indians are currently 48-43 and lead their division, thanks in large part to the contributions of many players currently in Pittsburgh.
“We had a first-place team in Indy,” Bell said. “We try to play with that spark. That’s what we were doing in Triple-A. We try to win every night and we’re trying to take that to the next level.”
Over the time in Indianapolis, the players began to push one another, as well. Opportunities would undoubtedly come, and each player tried to position himself to be best able to take advantage of them.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Taillon said, “I think as a collective group, we’ve pushed each other and made each other better.”
STARTING THE CYCLE
Taillon was the first to get the call. While he was out-dueling New York Mets’ ace Noah Syndergaard in his major-league debut, his teammates were on the road in Columbus, trying to find a way to watch via laptops and cell phones.
What they saw was a young pitcher that didn’t look at all out of place in the major leagues. It was a light-bulb moment for some of them. The fact that Taillon wasn’t out of place meant they wouldn’t be, either.
“It was toughest on Jameson to come up here and not have any of us up here,” Kuhl said. “To see him and guys that we’ve played with for years now do well, I don’t want to say it makes it easier, but it gives you that confidence that if the guys I was just playing with went up there and had some success, I’m sure I’ll be able to have that same success. So, I think there’s definitely that factor of where you can feed off what we’ve done and come up with confidence to play well.”
It was a duty that Taillon was more than obliged to perform, and he’s enjoyed watching the process unfold.
“For me, I remember seeing [Gerrit Cole] come up here and do well and thinking that maybe I could come up here and do it,” he recalled. “For them, I was the first one out of the group to come up here and I think they saw me fit in and that definitely could have helped ease them up.
“For me, [Friday] night on the bench, seeing Frazier and Josh set up that inning, just as a team player and a cheerleader last night, it was really cool to see a couple of guys who I’ve played with and gone through the season with do that.”
“It definitely helps,” said Frazier. “Until [Saturday], I was the only position guy, so I was hanging out with the pitchers all the time. That’s kinda rare. Josh comes up and it was a little different sitting next to a guy that I’ve been with for a while. It’s pretty cool.”
As young MLB players, much of what occurs in the future will be in their hands, but as Hurdle will frequently point out, there is a lot that is also out of their control. Roster moves are necessitated by the health and performance of the entire roster and players can be shipped out due to no fault of their own.
That can be a nerve-wracking process. Still in their early 20s, none of the Pirates’ prospects can be called a finished product. But that final part of their development will now have to occur with 35,000 fans in the stands and a pennant race on the line.
“I feel like I’ve been doing well, but obviously there’s some things I can improve on,” Frazier said. “You just try to control what you can control and take it day-by-day and try your best. There are some things that are obviously out of your control as far as roster moves, but you just go about your business, play the best you can, and whatever happens, happens.”
Kuhl also seems to have a “ce’st la vie” attitude about how he’s judged on his performance.
“It’s just my job to prepare for the [next start]; that’s all I can control,” he said. “It’s almost freeing. You can’t worry about it because you can’t control any of it. I didn’t know if my first one was going to be a spot start and then I got a start in Oakland and I got another start. I’m just trying to take advantage of what’s in front of me.”
“You just try to control what you can control. take it day-by-day and try your best,” Frazier echoed. “There are some things that are obviously out of your control as far as roster moves, but you just go about your business, play the best you can, and whatever happens, happens.”
While fans will gnash their teeth over call-ups, playing time, potential trades, and fantasy scenarios for the remainder of the season, with so much uncertainly still at hand, it’s easiest for the players to take a simpler approach.
“For the most part, I haven’t thought about long-term,” Bell said. “I’m just focused on today.”
So far, that focus has served the Pirates well.