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Kovacevic: MVP? Sure, more of this, please

| Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012, 8:46 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen drives in a run with a double during the first inning against Houston Tuesday September 4, 2012 at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen drives in a run in front of Astros catcher Jason Castro on Tuesday Sept. 4, 2012, at PNC Park. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen doubles in the first inning against Houston Tuesday September 4, 2012 at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

Andrew McCutchen was strolling slowly off the PNC Park grass Tuesday afternoon after what must have felt like the Pirates' eleventy-billionth pregame warmup of 2012. The tension around the team was as sweltering as the air — few smiles or laughter in sight — and the charcoal clouds overhead painted a fittingly gloomy backdrop.

Insert annoying reporter.

“Cutch, got a minute?”

Hey, they don't pay us for our quality sense of timing.

To his credit, the man obliged not only his time but also his tolerance for a line of questioning I'd already poked a couple times this summer.

Was he thinking, at all, about being the National League MVP or batting champ?

Was he feeling that weight?

“No, not really,” McCutchen came back with the consistent answer. “I don't want to focus on that. I just want to focus on what I need to do that day better than the day before. You know, getting better at my offense or doing better defensively or vocally. I'm not focused on individual stats or anything like that.”

Sounds about right.

Sounded even better once those clouds cleared by nightfall, and McCutchen's 4 for 4, three-RBI outburst helped the Pirates past Houston, 6-2.

It was one game, and it came against a collection of Astros so comical they remind me of ... well, the Pirates from a couple years ago. So there's no cause to believe it's the start of anything, for the team or its best player.

But maybe it, at least, sent the right signal: If McCutchen doesn't perform like an MVP down the stretch, the team has no chance to stay in contention.

None.

And be sure that, in this case, individual and collective goals are hardly at odds.

As McCutchen himself put it, “If we get where we want to be, then all that stuff will be taken care of. At the same time, if everybody contributes, then it makes it easier for me individually to do what I'm doing.”

Right. Just like last night.

Look, McCutchen is having a marvelous year, the best seen in these parts since Skinny Barry. He's batting .347 with 24 home runs and 83 RBI, he's been sensational in center, and he's been a solid citizen.

He is the 2012 Pirates.

But sorry, he just hasn't been good enough for a while now.

Not for the team and, as a result, not for an MVP.

If that sounds unfair, so be it. Tell it to Ben Roethlisberger when he limps on a wonky ankle to lead the Steelers to a 12-4 record, then gets outgunned by Tim Tebow in the first round. Ben's the goat. Tell it to Evgeni Malkin, the NHL's runaway MVP in the regular season but a bum in some eyes because the Flyers goaded him into some ill-advised penalties.

That's the life of a great player. McCutchen is, beyond a doubt now, a great player.

But truth be told, if I cast an MVP vote today — I had a ballot last year but not this year because of the standard rotation — my choice would be San Francisco catcher Buster Posey.

Posey has a lower average (.330) and fewer home runs (19), but more RBI (85) and by far the better momentum in boosting his team. Most had left the Giants for dead when .346-batting Melky Cabrera was suspended last month for taking testosterone. But they're 10-3 since then, pulled ahead of the pack in the West, and Posey has stayed a steady .326 in that time.

McCutchen?

When he was the league's player of the month for June and July, the Pirates were 34-19, topping the majors in runs and taking over the Central Division. That's no coincidence. This was never a great offense. It just had a great player at the wheel.

But the Pirates are 12-20 since the July 31 trade deadline, and McCutchen was batting .250 in that time until Tuesday. It's not like he was swinging for the fences, with just two home runs. And it's not as if opponents were pitching around him, with two walks in the past two weeks.

I'll repeat: He just hasn't been good enough for a while now.

But there's a month for that to change, and it had to be encouraging, even against Houston, to see McCutchen driving the ball the opposite way again. That's usually a great sign for him.

He still might be MVP.

The Pirates still might make the playoffs, too.

But it sure looks like one will have to lead to the other.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at dkovacevic@tribweb.com.

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