After thrilling weekend, Bucs take show on road
Upbeat club fresh off passing first test of difficult April schedule
LOS ANGELES -- The Pirates knew they'd be in tough shape at the beginning of the season. Everyone concerned with such matters ranked their first-month schedule as the most difficult in the Majors.They couldn't exactly appeal the deal. "Obviously, the first 30 [games] are very challenging," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Hey, it's a Major League schedule. We've gotta show up." So all the Pirates could do was Cy. In Tuesday afternoon's opener of a nine-game western road trip, the Bucs will run into Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner. This is fresh off a season-opening homestand in which Pittsburgh saw the Phillies' Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee -- who own a combined three Cy Young Awards -- and Vance Worley. Total the 2011 records of this opening quartet, and it adds up to 68-22. And the Dodgers' starter in the hole for Wednesday night (Chad Billingsley) will merely be coming off eight innings of three-hit, shutout ball with 11 punchouts, in his first outing. For a team eager to shed its reputation as an offensive weakling, this could feel like trying to high-jump with a manhole cover on your back. Yet guess what? Sixty percent of the way through this gauntlet, the Bucs are 2-1 after having played rope-a-dope with the high-profile Philadelphia starters. "Our guys like to play," Hurdle said after his guys took the series from the Phillies. "They don't get caught up in the numbers or what it says on paper. [The Phillies] might have a better team than us; they certainly have a larger payroll than us. "But you play the game on grass, and that's something we hold onto every day. Our guys love matching up." Shortstop Clint Barmes, even after being the only Pittsburgh starter left hitless through three games, said, "I enjoy those games. When their No. 1s, the best pitchers in the game, are on the mound, those are the fun ones for me. Just to grind it out, one little mistake could cost you the game." Grind it out and wait it out. That's what the Pirates did with the Phillies trio, which is where the rope-a-dope stall comes in. Halladay, Lee and Worley essentially did their thing, holding Pittsburgh to nine hits in their 19 innings. But the Bucs' own starters -- Erik Bedard, Jeff Karstens and James McDonald -- kept pace with them, and in doing so, they kept the Pirates in the games until they could introduce the Phillies' bullpen to their "Finish" mantra. The Pittsburgh trio allowed four runs in their 18 innings. Combine that with a bullpen co-op that hasn't yet allowed an earned run, and with late production off the bench, and you've got the Pirates' winning formula. In his first start, Kevin Correia will try to apply the same hold on Kershaw by remaining true to his history in Dodger Stadium: He is 4-2 lifetime here. Correia is anxious to put it to a test. The Pirates' fourth starter will finally get to pitch on the season's sixth day, thanks to a couple of early off-days. "I'm always excited for that first start. I'm looking forward to it," said Correia, who won his first five road starts last season. Taking the last two games from the Phillies in walk-off fashion was a major boost to the Pirates' psyche. "We'll take a lot of confidence out of this," Neil Walker said. "It was good for this team, showing our resilience. Nobody's got us on top of the [NL] Central ... nowhere near it." Is that a collective chip on the Pirates' shoulder? Yep -- one they apparently rally around. "There's something to be said for holding our own [against the ace pitching they are facing]. Nobody believes in us," Hurdle said. "The mentality of 'us against the world' works for these guys." Late lightning strikes for wins are thrilling, ego-stroking. The only times the Pirates have led in their 28-innings-old season have been after the two walk-off hits -- by Alex Presley on Saturday and Andrew McCutchen on Sunday.
That is not a recipe for long-term success, however, certainly not on the road. Against Billingsley and the formidable San Francisco pitching they'll see over the weekend (minus ace Tim Lincecum, another two-time Cy Young Award winner, who isn't scheduled to start against Pittsburgh), the Bucs need quality at-bats earlier and more often."We've been fighting to score runs," general manager Neal Huntington said. "Our guys recognize who they're facing, but they also realize they've had pitches to hit. Against the best pitchers, you can't miss those -- and we missed quite a few of them in the first couple of games. The pitches we get to hit, we've got to square up on them. And if you don't get the pitch you're looking for, even if it's a strike, you can't swing at it. That takes maturity, and they're learning that." Huntington often turned to a favorite expression in Spring Training when analyzing young players cut from the Major League camp: "It's not where you start, but where you finish." In the early going, the Bucs have come up with their own riff on that: "It's not who you start, but how you finish."
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.