Wild Card Game hangover won't be problem for Pirates
After early exits in back-to-back postseasons, Bucs focused on division title
By Hal Bodley
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Sometimes it's difficult to shake an aching hangover that throbs inside and causes so much discomfort. To say the Pittsburgh Pirates are doing their best to put theirs behind them is an understatement. Try two of 'em, back-to-back.
The most recent is a pitcher named Jake Arrieta. The excruciating pain he inflicted was piled on top of what they faced the year before by another lights-out hurler named Madison Bumgarner.
Clint Hurdle didn't use these words, but he insists his Pirates have overcome the stupor inflicted by Arrieta and Bumgarner in back-to-back National League Wild Card Games
"It's not easy, but I think we've been able to turn the page and not focus on the past," Hurdle said the other day before a Grapefruit League game. "I give the players a lot of credit. That is the past."
The Pirates had the second-best record (98-64) in the Major Leagues last season, but their season ended quickly when Arrieta pitched the Cubs to a win with a five-hit, complete-game shutout in the NL Wild Card Game. The Cubs' ace went on to win the NL Cy Young Award.
And the year before, it was Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants who sent the Pirates home early, another complete-game shutout in the NL Wild Card Game. The Pirates managed just four hits and lost, 8-0, that night. Bumgarner, of course, was the toast of 2014's postseason, leading the Giants to a World Series title.
For the Pirates, call it luck of the draw.
"We cannot dwell on that," said Hurdle, who has returned the Pirates to prominence after 20 straight years (1993-2012) of losing seasons -- the longest period of futility in North American sports history. They've made the postseason each of the plast three years since.
I have always admired Hurdle's philosophy on life. Each day he emails his thoughts for the day to a lengthy list of recipients. At the end, he usually closes with either "Win Your Day" or "Make a Difference."
For Clint, it's all about today -- right now. Forget about yesterday, and don't dwell on tomorrow. He reasons you must take care of today; yesterday is already a cancelled bank check.
"You have to keep learning and build on that," Hurdle said. "As we age, it's amazing how much we really didn't know."
As the Pirates prepare for a new season, winning the difficult NL Central Division is a longshot. The Cubs, under Joe Maddon, could be the best team in Major League Baseball. And the defending division-champion Cardinals are always a threat, a perennial postseason team.
Then comes the Pirates.
Hurdle sat behind his desk in the visitors' clubhouse at Bright House Field and put 2016 in perspective, from the Pirates' point of view.
"We understand who we are. We understand the league we play in and the division we play in. That being said, our focus remains on ourselves to get a little better every day and continue to improve all over the field, and ultimately to win our division," he said. Locking both hands behind his head and forcing a little smile, he added: "And then to take that to a World Series championship."
It would seem that overcoming the disappointment of the past two NL Wild Card Games and getting past Chicago and St. Louis adds enormous pressure to the upcoming season.
"Pressure is what you feel when you don't know what you're doing. At least that's what Peyton Manning told me a long time ago," Hurdle said.
Hurdle said McCutchen, the team leader, sets a great example for younger players, including helping them forget about Arrieta and Bumgarner.
"The moment he walks into the clubhouse, he never stops working and improving," said Hurdle. "Having someone with that attitude is so important for the younger players."
McCutchen, just 29, is a five-time All-Star and the 2013 NL MVP Award winner. He insists that he's over the disappointments.
"It hurt the first month, when you're still sitting there, still in that baseball mood and you want to go, but you're just sitting home and watching," he said as Spring Training opened. "Then it stings. But now it's a new season and a new year."
Jaso, who was given a two-year, $8 million contract, has a .361 career on-base percentage, which excites Hurdle. And recently, the Pirates signed infielder David Freese to a one-year, $3 million deal. They're hoping Freese, 32, can return to the form he showed in 2011, when he was the MVP in the NL Championship Series and World Series for the Cardinals.
Can Jaso play first base?
"He's doing well," said Hurdle. "He's had that glove [at first base] on for just five innings during his seven-year career. Getting that bat in our lineup is a plus."
Gerrit Cole, who went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA last season, is the ace at the top of the rotation, but Hurdle has tapped veteran lefty Francisco Liriano to start the opener against St. Louis on April 3.
Hurdle became enthusiastic when he talked about the Pirates bullpen, anchored by closer Mark Melancon, who led the Major Leagues with 51 saves in 53 opportunities last season.
"The thing about a bullpen is whether you are forced to use it, or want to use it," said Hurdle. "We're the latter, and that is what I like."
Admittedly, the Pirates have to be concerned about the Cubs and Cardinals, and the Brewers and Reds in their division.
"I think the best thing about us is we know who we are," said Hurdle. "And the best thing about us is we measure ourselves by how we do with what we have, from top to bottom."
Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.