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McCutchen is Pirates' center of attention

| Saturday, July 7, 2012, 11:42 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen waits to bat on-deck during a game against the Houston Astros on Thursday July 5, 2012 at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

Pirates fans watching on TV recently uttered a collective gasp and then a whoosh of relief after Andrew McCutchen fell on his wrist. This week at PNC Park, there has been loud, sustained cheering for the Pirates and chants of “M-V-P” aimed at McCutchen.

Strange sounds have augmented the usual booms of thunder and fireworks during this sweltering summer, the summer of “Cutch.”

Like the weather, the Pirates are sizzling. Not coincidentally, so is McCutchen, the multiskilled, 25-year-old center fielder who was named National League Player of the Month for June, although May was pretty good, too. He is going to Tuesday's All-Star Game in Kansas City and was added to Monday's Home Run Derby, his splendid play, charisma and flying dreadlocks rapidly raising his national profile.

“This hasn't happened in a Pirates uniform in a long time,” manager Clint Hurdle said.

In his fourth season, McCutchen is perhaps exceeding the expectations borne when he was taken from Fort Meade (Fla.) High School with the 11th pick in the 2005 draft. As catalyst of the club's sudden surge to first place, he has been so good that any absence would be unthinkable.

The point was hammered home when he made a diving catch against the Cardinals in St. Louis and landed on his left wrist. Known for his physical and mental toughness, McCutchen winced in pain and did again later while checking his swing. It turned out to be a minor sprain, but an entire organization and its fan base saw the end of a promising season flash before their eyes.

McCutchen is that important.

Asked a few weeks ago if extra time is spent discussing how to pitch to McCutchen, Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, “We spend less time. You just say, ‘Don't let him beat you.' ”

The plan is sound but hard to implement. McCutchen was hitting .360, tops in the majors, entering Saturday's game against the Giants. With Pedro Alvarez and others finally helping out offensively, the Pirates were 26-13 since May 25.

In the NL, McCutchen ranks among the top 10 in runs, hits, home runs, RBI, total bases and OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), plus several more complex stats that further reveal his value. Going into Saturday, he had all 16 of his homers and 47 of his 56 RBI since May 8. He also plays a slick center field.

Shortstop Clint Barmes said McCutchen's relentless pace reminds him of playing in Colorado two years ago with Carlos Gonzalez, who hit .336 with 34 homers, 111 runs, 117 RBI and a league-leading 197 hits in his first full big-league season.

“You kept thinking, ‘He's gonna slow down. He's gonna slow down,' ” Barmes said. “A couple of weeks go by, then a couple of months, and the next thing you know it's the last week of the season.”

“He's playing the game with confidence,” Hurdle said of McCutchen. “He's playing the game with joy.”

Room for improvement

McCutchen said he always loves to play but admits the second half of last season was difficult. After making his first All-Star Game, he sought to personally lift the team out of the 19-43 descent that would ruin the year. He tried to pull everything and “change the game with one swing,“ Hurdle said.

McCutchen had 23 homers and 89 RBI but batted just .216 during his final 72 games and ended up at .259. As soon as the season ended, he returned to Florida to work with former teammate Steve Pearce, study other hitters and revamp his stance and swing.

“I knew I could do better,” McCutchen said. “I wasn't satisfied with mediocrity, being OK. To others it was good. To me it was horrible. That's why I didn't take much time off. I wanted to get back at it, get myself prepared.

“I basically just stopped listening to everything and asked myself, ‘What do I need to do?' Because I know myself the best. Nothing against anyone else, but that's what I told myself. The only thing I told myself was, ‘Be comfortable. Be comfortable. Get comfortable.' And that's basically what I did.”

McCutchen this season is hitting to all fields, even his home runs. Infielder Casey McGehee said he is struck by how “stubborn” McCutchen is at the plate, meaning “he refuses to change what his approach is and what his mindset is,” he said.

“I think he's got a good grasp of what he's good at and what his strengths are, and he really sticks to his guns, and he's gonna attack this at-bat the way he wants to attack it and not let the pitcher dictate what he's gonna do,” said McGehee, who spent the previous three seasons in Milwaukee playing with outstanding hitters Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.

He added, “It would really have been easy for him, especially early in the season when he was the only one hitting, to feel like he had to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. But he stayed in his area and kept doing what he did really well.”

It was a busy offseason for McCutchen, whose agent worked out a six-year, $51 million contract extension.

“It definitely helped,” McCutchen said. “I don't have to worry about putting pressure on myself. Now I can just go out and have fun.”

Even though he is among the fastest and best-conditioned players, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound McCutchen also put himself through a month of tortuous workouts at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

“These things echoed to me,” Hurdle said. “They screamed to me. This man is not your common player. He's a craftsman. He wants to find a way to master his craft.”

A rock star

McCutchen has drawn inevitable comparisons to a young Barry Bonds who, starting at age 25, averaged 31 homers, 111 RBI, 45 steals and hit .301 over three seasons for the Pirates before signing a then-record contract with the Giants after the 1992 season.

Leyland, who managed Bonds with the Pirates, said he does not compare players but did allow that McCutchen seems “steadier” in temperament than the high-strung, emotional Bonds. “Barry was more of a brash-type player,” Leyland said. “I think Andrew's more of a silent-type player.”

Leyland called McCutchen a “tremendously gifted athlete that happens to be a great baseball player.”

“If I was scouting Andrew McCutchen, he would stick out immediately,” Leyland said. “If they said, ‘Go find me a player,' I could come to the game and watch the Pirates play and see that this guy has a chance to be a superstar.”

Leyland wasn't finished.

“This guy's special,” he said. “I don't know him, but I like the way he goes about his business. I watch how he carries himself. I watch how he handles himself. He seems to be a very polite young man. He seems to have inner confidence. It looks like he's got it figured out.”

Pirates broadcaster and former pitcher Bob Walk, who played with Bonds, said, “Right now they're about as comparable as you can think. ... McCutchen probably gets along with his teammates better. With Barry, there wasn't a whole lot of leadership stuff. With McCutchen, that's definitely not the case.”

McCutchen's quiet leadership style is generally avowed, along with his extensive work with youth and charity organizations. Michelle Mejia, the Pirates' director of community relations, said McCutchen has a “rock star” appeal with fans and embraces the role.

As the so-called face of the franchise, McCutchen is so accustomed to being recognized, he tweeted in amusement the other day that no one stopped him on the Roberto Clemente Bridge as he walked home after a game.

He is familiar with Clemente and his legacy.

“If you want to do things the right way, that's someone you would look at,” he said. “When I'm not here anymore, I want to be known as somebody that made an impact on somebody else's life.

“This is something that we're called to do as a player and a person. We're on this earth for a reason, and I know, for me, it's not just baseball. It's not the only reason I'm here. There's way more to it than just that. I'm starting to slowly figure out what I'm here for and what I'm capable of doing.”

Said Mejia, “He has the ability to do something really amazing in this town.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at and 412-320-7810.

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