PITTSBURGH — No one in the Pirates’ clubhouse wants to dwell on the fact that nearly every minute of their first nine games have been played in near-freezing temperatures.
As Josh Bell reminded reporters following Wednesday’s snow squall of a loss to Minnesota at PNC Park, both sides are experiencing the same conditions.
That is correct, good sir.
Iván Nova didn’t provide much more insight when I approached him prior to a Sunday afternoon game against the Reds, one the Pirates would win 5-0 to improve to 7-2.
“I just don’t think about it,” Nova said. “Don’t think about it at all. I don’t change anything.”
That’s all well and good, but running around in the cold after six weeks in Florida loses its luster pretty quick, doesn’t it?
“We just try to forget about it,” Michael Feliz said.
The visuals tell a different story. Infielders hopping in place between pitches. Bench players huddled around space heaters in the dugout. Position players — and even umpires — sporting hoods and ski masks.
— Matt Gajtka (@MattGajtka) April 8, 2018
“Can’t catch a break,” Jordy Mercer said. “It’s just brutal. Baseball’s not meant to be played in cold weather. Hard to hit. Hard to stay warm. Your body hurts. Just everything in general about it is not good.
“Your body doesn’t react as well. Your mind is just not as locked in because you’re so cold (and) you’re worried about the cold.”
Figured we could count on the shortstop to break the ice, so to speak.
But while Mercer didn’t sugarcoat the ‘snowball’ experience, he had to admit he was impressed with how the Pirates have roared to the top of the National League Central despite every external excuse to ease their way into things.
“It’s tough to play in these conditions, it really is,” Mercer said. “It’s not fun at all, but we’ve been playing well. We’ve been playing well in this.”
Except for an opening win in Detroit that was as sloppy as they come, the Pirates have indeed played well. At 7-2 after Jameson Taillon one-hit the Reds on Sunday in his first career shutout, the Pirates are off to their best nine-game start since 1993.
As Clint Hurdle put it after the game, the “barrel is showing up” at the plate and the only real complaint about the starting rotation is that they aren’t (polar) plunging deep enough into games. Or, they weren’t until Taillon ran the route in 110 pitches, allowing the Pirates to take three of four.
“The vibe in the clubhouse is pretty strong,” Taillon said. “We knew we had a good team in spring training. We want to keep it going.”
With a trip to Chicago coming up, starting Monday at what will be a frigid Wrigley Field, there will be continued challenges from the standpoint of both conditions and competition.
Ironically, one of the Pirates who has looked the coldest during this extended winter has also been one of the hottest with the bat in his hands. Gregory Polanco launched a two-run homer Sunday, giving him a .310/.447/.759 batting line in 2018, all produced while he’s been bundled in a black balaclava.
Polanco is one of a few Pirates who said he doesn’t mind taking on his pregame calisthenics and drills in the indoor batting cage at PNC Park.
“I’m from the Dominican,” Polanco said, laughing as he taped up the knob of his bat. “We don’t have that weather down there so I like to warm up in the (indoor) cage. … Do everything we can to keep our body loose. If we go out there, we do things for nothing.”
Polanco leads the team with three homers and 13 RBIs, the fourth-most in Pirates history through the first 10 games of the season. Like many of his teammates, you wouldn’t be able to tell he was uncomfortable.
However, Polanco couldn’t have been more clear that this experience has been a grind. He said he couldn’t remember a chillier stretch of baseball since he started plying his trade in this country.
“It’s been crazy,” he said. “It’s the worst. You know we’re close to the river (in the outfield). It’s hard, bro. It’s hard, bro. It is what it is. Gotta do what you gotta do. Other team is doing it, too.”
Everyone I talked to in a canvass of the clubhouse seemed to have some specific remedy for the cold. For New York-raised rookie Colin Moran, it’s wearing long sleeves and putting hand warmers in his pockets. For the Dominican veteran Nova, it’s using some spit to enhance his grip on slick baseballs.
And for Mercer, well …
“Just rub Vasoline on my body, some hot stuff on my body as well,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of stuff in there, concoctions in there that we use.”
If there was a magic potion to create an encouraging first 10 days of the regular season, you know the Pirates would’ve rubbed it on their extremities, too.
It might be a total coincidence that they’ve risen up amidst the most miserable start to the Major League Baseball calendar that anyone on the corner of Federal and General Robinson could remember. In December-like temperatures, in front of meager crowds and with little by way of expectations, the Pirates are generating some heat anyway.
“I used to say, ‘It’s really cold,’ but what you gonna do?” Nova said, recalling his younger days as a professional. “You still have to go out there and pitch, so you just have to put that out of your mind. Just go do it.”
Not to paint with too broad of a brush, but that advice could apply for a lot of external distractions, not just the falling mercury.
Anyway, at some point they’ll need a respite, right?
“We’ve been fighting through it,” Mercer said, “but can’t wait to get to Miami and get a break!”