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Kovacevic: Achieving is believing

About Dejan Kovacevic
Picture Dejan Kovacevic
Sports Columnist
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports writer for the Tribune-Review.

By Dejan Kovacevic

Published: Tuesday, June 25, 2013, 11:03 p.m.

It isn't easy, is it?

You want to believe.

You want to bounce out of your seat every time Jason Grilli's locks go flying with that fiery fist pump. Every time Gerrit Cole touches triple digits. Every time Pedro Alvarez plants one in the second deck. Every time Andrew McCutchen or Starling Marte eats a face full of outfield grass. Every time some other Jeff Locke or Jeanmar Gomez makes a play for your baseball heart.

Every time you twist your thumbs to form that silly Z.

You want to.

And maybe if you'd just plunged onto this planet from some other solar system, you would.

Because you wouldn't carry the weight of two decades of disappointment and despair, of Derek Bell and Dave Littlefield, of that eternally damning distance between the runner's foot and home plate when Jerry Meals signaled safe.

Because you wouldn't know about Epic Collapses I or II. Or, for that matter, how all tragedies come in trilogies.

Because you wouldn't grasp why the Reds throwing at Cutch doesn't represent a free baserunner but an assault on your very identity.

But you've been here all along, and you do get it. Oh, do you ever.

And so do I.

• • •

I haven't believed.

Won't lie. Won't hide it.

I've looked at nearly every play, every outcome with a skeptical eye. The next pitch, surely, would be the gopher ball. The next loss, surely, would pop the balloon.

Hard to say if that's the 20 years at work. Or the half-decade I spent on the beat. Or the five years of failure under the current management team. Or even all the Hoka Hey nonsense that came to light last fall that stuck the flags atop the circus tent.

More than anything, I think, it was that the man at the very top had clearly lost faith.

This isn't a popular position in this town, but I trust Bob Nutting. I have ever since he took control of the Pirates' ownership in 2007. And when he went about his organizational review after last season, pushing hard for answers from the inside — harder than people will know — and even asking questions from baseball people on the outside, it gave off a powerful impression that this was a ship on the cusp of capsizing.

It's done anything but, of course.

So I called the man Tuesday, with his team at 46-30 and the buzz of baseball, to ask how he feels now about the front office he employs.

“I think the organization really has made tremendous progress, and that progress is a credit to the existing management team,” Nutting said from Wheeling, W.Va., in his typically unflappable tone. “When I look back at where we were six years ago and where we are today, I do believe we are a much stronger organization at every level than we were then or have been for a long time.”

If that sounds like an endorsement, I can't say I'm ready to second it. Not after two-plus months of success. Been there, documented that.

But the fact Nutting feels as he does, and that he's armed with more information than any of us can have, and that he challenged his management team to reassess — among many other practices — its free-agency processes right before Russell Martin became the first productive signing under Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington, all of that's certainly cause for encouragement.

Does he feel meaningful changes were made?

“Absolutely,” Nutting said. “We did take a step back. And through the honest evaluations we made in the fall, we made changes, made improvements. We have other changes we continue to need to make. We're not a perfect organization. We won't ever be perfect. But I'm confident we'll continue to improve on all areas, whether it's scouting or development or major-league acquisitions or how we're coaching players or, frankly, the execution on the field.”

Better question: Does he believe?

“I really do. I believe that this is for real. I believe in this team. I believe in the leadership of the coaching staff. And I believe in this group of players. There's a lot of baseball left to be played, but I think this is a group that could do something really special.”

• • •

If you don't appreciate cold-hearted pragmatism, look away.

The Pirates are 16 games over .500 but have scored only 29 more runs than they've given up.

They've come from behind in 19 of their 46 victories, including nine wins when trailing after the seventh inning.

They have a winning record, 19-18, when the starting pitcher lasts less than six innings.

Their starters rank 22nd in the majors in quality starts but third in ERA.

They're 9-1 in games started by Gomez, Brandon Cumpton or Phil Irwin.

The relievers rank sixth in ERA but a terrifying second in innings pitched.

This one's my favorite: They've had five plays subjected to video review. Four were changed to home runs.

Pixie dust, charm bracelets and unicorns, anyone?

No team does this. Not anywhere at any time in any realm of the imagination.

Except for these Pirates.

And they're doing so at a pace that not only will annihilate The Streak by, oh, early September, but also will meet Nutting's public challenge to his front office to contend for a playoff berth deep into the season.

The current pace: 98 wins.

I know, right?

But there's also something else at work here, and it's hardly mystical.

They believe.

You might not. I might not. But they unquestionably do.

“I don't know how you couldn't believe. I mean, we've been doing it all season,” reliever Mark Melancon was saying by phone Tuesday from Seattle. “The pitching staff's been unbelievable. The hitters are getting it done. It's been a lot of fun, and we're going to keep cruising.”

Melancon might be the most underappreciated of the Pirates and not just because of his absurd 0.96 ERA and outright ridiculous 0.86 WHIP as Jason Grilli's setup man. He's also the most understated. You won't see the pointing, the pumping, the feral scream. You'll just see three outs on about six or seven pitches.

It's that cool, if you ask me, that's overtaken this whole outfit. You see them laughing and joking together in the clubhouse, hanging out on their own (Travis Snider took the team out for steaks Sunday night), and yet fully composed in tight situations.

“It's because we're all in it together,” Melancon said. “I've never been part of a team where every man hangs on every pitch the way we do.”

In the more tangible sense, of course, it's been the pitching of both back-end guys. Melancon and Grilli have the Pirates essentially playing seven-inning games. That's allowed Clint Hurdle to smoothly navigate injuries or the occasional Mike Zagurski in the ointment. That's allowed the majors' 21st-best scoring offense — with a team batting average of .241 and no regular as high as .290 — to scrounge up just enough to count.

It starts at the finish, oddly, but it all carries over: It buys time for Alvarez to do his April thing, then blow up the world by June. Same for Cutch and Neil Walker to return to career norms. And for A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez to resume being rotation anchors.

Sound like a formula for a summer-long success?

Wow, no.

But this isn't logic. It's baseball. It's the sport, more than any other, that moves to its own beat, that makes its own magic.

As Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher once famously spoke, “Baseball is like church: Many attend. Few understand.”

Do any of us really want to understand how a team gives up nine runs, commits three errors, has its closer smacked around … then shakes hands after the same closer whiffs the Angels' sensational Mike Trout for the final out?

Or is it OK to just want more?

 

 

 
 


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