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PITTSBURGH -- Don't take this as an invitation to share your every wit and wisdom the next time you're blessed with the primo seats, but, yes, the managers and players hear you when you scream at them.
So, yeah, Clint Hurdle heard you, whoever you are, when you yelled to the Pirates the other night, "Don't fear .500!"
"I'm thinking, 'Dude, we're throwing everything we've got out there,'" Hurdle recalled with a laugh. "What do you mean, 'Don't fear .500?'"
The median mark carries real resonance in these parts. It's already well documented that the Pirates have posted 18 consecutive losing seasons. But there's more to it: Keep in mind there are 11-year-old Pirates fans who have never seen their beloved Buccos hold so much as a winning record for a single day in the month of June or beyond.
Well, kids, the wait didn't end Thursday night, when the Pirates couldn't complete a sweep of the D-backs and fell to 30-31, but there is growing reason to believe it will cease soon.
Believe it or not, though, a .506 winning percentage for the season is not the Pirates' goal.
"Our goal is to win the National League Central Division, first and foremost, then go from there," second baseman and local product Neil Walker said. "People are going to read that and laugh at us. But we're not worried about breaking the streak. We're worried about playing good baseball on a daily basis."
It's not quite a daily occurrence yet, but the Pirates are already leaps and bounds ahead of where they were a year ago. That's a testament to their starting pitching, first and foremost, and Hurdle's influence. And really, who better to get the Pirates over the hump than a guy named Hurdle?
When Hurdle was hired, he retained then-interim pitching coach Ray Searage, who had spent 33 years in pro ball and the previous eight at various levels of the Pirates' farm system. Both Hurdle and Searage are veterans of the game who have old-school expectations for their pitchers. They scoff at the now-established definition of a "quality start."
"Six innings, three runs or less is not a quality start to us," Hurdle said. "I say, 'Finish seven. Just finish seven, and we'll see where that takes us.' If they're in there for seven, they're pitching pretty well."
Lo and behold, they're pitching pretty well.
Pirates starters, surprisingly, have the fifth-best ERA (3.51) in the NL, trailing just the Braves, Phillies, Giants and Padres entering Friday's game against the Mets. The staff ERA is 2.63 over the past 20 games. The win stat can be deceiving, but it's nonetheless worth noting that the Pirates' starting staff notched just 34 wins all of last season. This year, they're at 21 and counting.
Kevin Correia came aboard over the winter and has gone 8-4 with a 3.64 ERA. A lack of run support has Paul Maholm at 2-7, but he's posted a 3.39 ERA. Charlie Morton entered the year with a career record of 11-29 and ERA of 5.98, but he's 6-2 with a 2.52 ERA. James McDonald (3-4, 4.97) has been a fine fourth starter, and Jeff Karstens (3-4, 2.94) has filled in admirably in the wake of an injury to everybody's favorite arbitration winner, Ross Ohlendorf.
The long-term hope in Pittsburgh largely rests on the impact arms added to the system in the past year in Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie, Luis Heredia and newly minted No. 1 Draft pick Gerrit Cole. The current staff, though, not only suffices but is a success, and Hurdle hopes to raise the ante on their contributions in the coming weeks.
"A little success here, a little success there, and all of a sudden you're Superman. Players feed off that. I definitely believe they're at the point now where they know they can play. They're playing with risk better, which I really appreciate. They're playing the game to win the game and not worried about making the play to lose the game."
-- Pirates manager|
"We're trying to bump the pitch count up," he said. "We're sitting over 100 now. We want to get it up to 120 or 125 by the All-Star break."
This is considered bold thinking in the present day. In the Pirates' clubhouse, though, there is a growing air of accountability among the members of the starting staff.
"They're the machine that fuels this whole thing," Hurdle said. "I think they really have a good grasp of that. By them pitching all the meaningful innings they can, we can use the bullpen when we want to, versus when we have to."
Hurdle's club has needed that machine on the mound, because the lineup still leaves quite a bit to be desired, as was evident in Thursday's punchless 2-0 loss. Still, Walker is among the league's more productive second basemen, while Andrew McCutchen is electric. Left fielder Jose Tabata and third baseman Pedro Alvarez (who has been out with a quadriceps strain for more than a month) could be stars if they reach their potential.
"I feel like we've grown a lot," Walker said, "from the middle of last year, when a lot of younger players were first called up, to today."
Hurdle has helped that growth by creating a new clubhouse culture. From the day he arrived and started peppering Pirates players and personnel with inspirational e-mails, Hurdle has tried to get people in PNC Park to think like winners. He's a big guy with a booming voice, and it's resonated in the locker room.
"He's brought a real sense of not looking in the past," Walker said. "Not worrying about how many years we've gone without playing .500 ball, not worrying about tomorrow -- but worrying about preparing yourself today and playing hard. He's brought that to player one through 25, and all the way down to the Minor Leagues. It's not covering your own butt and going 2-for-4, but helping your team win.
"When you give your club that confidence, it creates a great environment in the clubhouse."
Hurdle said he's seen that confidence grow.
"Nothing breeds confidence like success," he said. "A little success here, a little success there, and all of a sudden you're Superman. Players feed off that. I definitely believe they're at the point now where they know they can play. They're playing with risk better, which I really appreciate. They're playing the game to win the game and not worried about making the play to lose the game."
Consider that nearly every member of the lineup has been given the green light at first base. That's the kind of faith few managers would place in such a budding club, but it speaks to the aggressive mentality Hurdle is trying to instill.
Maybe the goal Walker stated is laughable in the present tense. Maybe not. But what's indisputable is that, for the first time in a long, long time, real progress appears to be happening here. That the Pirates are playing meaningful baseball after May is a major step forward, in and of itself.
And no, they don't fear .500.
"It's a mile marker we've got to deal with and hopefully push by," Hurdle said. "We're taking it literally one day at a time."