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Kovacevic: Singing praise of Pirates' unsung

| Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013, 11:21 p.m.
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Russell Martin is congratulated by third base coach Nick Leyva after hitting a solo home run off of Trevor Rosenthal of the St. Louis Cardinals to tie the game during the eighth inning at Busch Stadium on August 15, 2013 in St. Louis.

The path to a pennant is littered with praise lavished upon a lot of the same names again and again, and these Pirates aren't an exception. But as Clint Hurdle was observing a little while back, “It takes everyone ... and I mean everyone” to pull it off.

To that end, I offer this Friday salute to four gentlemen performing well above their level of appreciation:

Nick Leyva

You know him as the world's worst third base coach, right?

News flash: All third base coaches are terrible in the fans' eyes.

Fact is, Leyva has been brilliant as the infield instructor. Under his watch, the defense has been among the majors' most efficient and, most impressive, Neil Walker suddenly is a force to his right, and Pedro Alvarez can charge rollers as well as anyone in baseball.

“We're really proud of the work of all our infielders,” Leyva was telling me before this past road trip.

There's more: For a baseball lifer — Leyva celebrates his 60th birthday Friday and has been in pro ball for 37 years — he's been on the vanguard of the positional shifts that have been a big part of the Pirates' success. All 30 teams compile scouting reports like the ones the Pirates use, but no one is squeezing more from them than Leyva.

Remember Walker's catch in shallow right the other night in St. Louis?

That came as the result of Leyva shouting from the dugout for Walker to move back a dozen steps.

Marc DelPiano

DelPiano is only 45, but this special assistant to GM Neal Huntington has served in nearly every front-office capacity from farm director to international scout, a decade of that with talent-rich Expos and Marlins.

His role since joining the Pirates in late 2008 is completely different in that he scouts and recommends players for major league acquisitions, but he's been phenomenal. His list includes A.J. Burnett, Russell Martin, Jason Grilli and Michael McKenry, among others.

Not bad, huh?

Huntington long has preferred not to publicly credit individual scouts, but DelPiano's work in Pittsburgh has caught the eye of the baseball world. He's a rising star.

He's humble, too. Last time I saw him at PNC Park a month ago, as we parted ways, he shouted out, “Don't ever give me credit. If you do, make sure to add I was the guy who got Zagurski.”

That would be Mike Zagurski of the 15.00 ERA in six calamitous outings earlier this year.

Can't hit on 'em all.

Jeanmar Gomez

You can have your Francisco Liriano comeback tales. I'll take Gomez all day.

On Jan. 9, 2013, in a transaction that barely merited the tiny type in the back of a sports section, Gomez was acquired from the Indians for Double-A outfielder Quincy Latimore.

Gomez, 25, has been a blessing for Hurdle and Ray Searage, given the need for a rubber-arm type once Jeff Karstens was felled. He's made eight starts, 14 (mostly long) relief appearances, and has a combined 3.00 ERA.

“That's all because of Jeanmar,” Searage will tell you. “This kid ... what I'll tell you is this: He wants to be in this rotation. Right now. And if you believe, good things can happen.”

And Latimore?

He's with the Washington Wild Things. That's not a joke.

Clint Hurdle

Yeah, really.

To gauge public sentiment, the Pirates are 0-49 when Hurdle makes an actual decision, 71-0 when he simply watches.

Sorry, doesn't wash.

Absolutely he'll make the occasional old-school head-scratcher. Did it in the 6-5 loss Thursday in St. Louis by bunting Starling Marte and lifting the bat from some of his best hitters. Killed a potential rally. Awful decision.

But he's also managed the team to victory — strategically — more often than most seem to realize. Unless, of course, one can conceive of producing 28 comeback W's despite a manager.

Most important, it's Hurdle who's instilled the attitude, the approach on display even in the two losses to St. Louis just now. The endings were bitter, sure, but it took the Cardinals eight extra innings and every bead of sweat.

Hurdle's right: It does take everyone. But it takes the man in his mirror more than anyone.

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