Resilient Pirates refuse to be kept down
Pittsburgh responding with Game 2 win after Game 1 loss was no surprise
PITTSBURGH -- Like any ordinary band of pirates looking for buried treasure, the Pirates hit a lot of dead ends on their search for the gateway to the postseason. But these Pirates have spent the season coming out alive from the most dire circumstances, not unlike Captain Jack Sparrow, that famous Caribbean pirate.
Clint Hurdle's Bucs also followed a script -- one that has had a lot of rewrites.
"I think we tried some things that didn't work, or individuals were thinking things that didn't work, holding on to things that didn't help," said Hurdle, mindful of the 2011-12 teams that were not quite as resilient. "So I think as a group, the pack mentality overtook it."
Hurdle tackled anew the subject of the Pirates' resilience on Saturday's off-day in the National League Division Series schedule, a day after the Pirates' latest 180 (Game 3 is Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET on TBS).
The only remarkable thing about the Bucs' 7-1 win over St. Louis 20 hours after a 9-1 drubbing was how unremarkable it was, a perfect reflection of what the team has been doing all year.
"We've done a pretty good job of turning the page and moving forward," Neil Walker said.
"We've been a one-game-at-a-time team," A.J. Burnett said.
"We go out and play that particular day's game, focus on today," Jason Grilli said.
"We shake it off, get a good night's rest, get ready for the morning," Andrew McCutchen said.
And, of course, the ever ubiquitous "We shower well."
The water bill has been well worth it. Numerous junctures during the season portended demise for the team, especially given the precedent for collapse established in 2011-12. Believers in bad things coming in threes repeatedly braced for this trifecta, shutting their eyes -- only to have them quickly opened by brilliant bounce-backs.
• In the very beginning, the Pirates lost five of their first six games -- not the preferable getaway to fix the mindset of a club coming off a 7-21 September.
The Bucs came home to sweep the Reds and take three of four from the Braves, and never saw the dark side of .500 again.
• The Pirates were swept out of Atlanta on June 3-5, a mess compounded by the loss -- for the rest of the season, as it would develop -- of No. 2 starter Wandy Rodriguez to a forearm injury.
On their next road trip, the Bucs kick-started a nine-game winning streak.
• On Aug. 9-11, the Pirates were swept out of Colorado, part of a 1-5 trip .
The Bucs opened their next road swing, to their traditional West Coast quicksand, by winning four of five.
• And the most taunting episode yet: A blown-out three-game sweep in St. Louis on Sept. 6-8.
The Bucs moved on to Arlington, where they swept the tough Rangers to begin a six-of-seven recovery.
That's what Hurdle's Herd did. But how did they fix it? It was broken last season: The Pirates and the Giants, on their way to a World Series title, were the only Major League teams from mid-April through mid-August to not have a losing streak longer than four games; when Pittsburgh hit that first major bump, it couldn't step over it. The Bucs had losing streaks of seven and five games in September.
"It's a belief in everyone in here," Burnett said, waving a hand around the clubhouse. "Obviously, we've always had that, but it's different when you win and are playing for something.
"That's been the main thing .... the belief that one or two losses aren't going to turn into four or five."
There isn't a greater truism in baseball than a team's fate rests in the hand of the pitcher who holds the ball. Not being dependent on the same arm to reverse slides fosters confidence. The turnaround games in the four episodes cited above were started by four different pitchers: Burnett, Brandon Cumpton, Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole.
"You just feel like there's a flow," closer Grilli said, fighting to explain the difference between last season and this. "It's almost like when you're shooting free throws and you find your touch. It just feels like, 'I got it.' And after you sink the free throw, you can move back to the three-point line and keep draining it."
At the dusk of the 2012 season, general manager Neal Huntington had said, "Every team has tough stretches. Our's was longer and late, which made it feel that much tougher. We need to find a way to keep the downturns from growing."
This was another specific item on Hurdle's anecdotal to-do list that was checked off. For only the 12th time in the Pirates' long history, they did not have a losing record in any of the season's six months; for a club that had gone a composite 36-76 in the last two Augusts and Septembers, that was a source of pride.
"As a team, I think as you continue to grow older and have maturity and add layers [of] physical toughness and mental discipline, you're able to evaluate what doesn't work," Hurdle said. "What we tried didn't work. We're going to kick that to the curb and stay focused on what we need to be focused on. Let's not hold on to the individuality of it and hold on to the group effort of it and continue to play the game forward, keep it simple. And I think that has really worked for our group."
One cannot dismiss the experiences of 2011-12 as building blocks. By the third time the Pirates found themselves in a similar situation, the collective mindset had to be, "Hey, our normal must be pretty good for us to get to this point again. Let's just stick to it."
"Experience and maturity," Grilli said. "OK, we got here. How did we get here? How do we stay here? It's consistency ... the Burger King model. Go into any Burger King anywhere, and your burger will taste the same."
Burnett implied the players late last season weren't the only ones caught trying to play a different game, that staff entered into that hazy area Hurdle refers to as "overcooking bad results" or, in that case, overcoaching in attempts to move on from it.
"They've allowed these guys to play the same game this year," Burnett said. "Little things, like belief in what got us here and sticking to it."
Grilli came up with another save, offering the best possible analogy for why the Pirates' third shot at raising their game to playoff level found its mark.
Pointing to the big-screen TV rigged out with video games in the middle of the clubhouse, Grilli said, "You get to a new level the first time, well, you're just trying to see what it's about ... you don't know there's a guy shooting from behind that door.
"When you do know what to expect, it becomes easier. It's kinda like that."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.