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Kovacevic: Time for Pirates to get real

| Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, 11:52 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage talks with starting pitcher Francisco Liriano during a workout Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Pirates take batting practice during a workout Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen talks with reporters during a workout Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano works out Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker (left) and center fielder Andrew McCutchen work out Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen takes batting practice during a workout Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, at PNC Park.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Pirates fans pack Market Square on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, for a rally as the team prepares to make its first postseason appearance since 1992.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Pirates fans pack Market Square on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, for a playoff rally as the team prepares to make its first postseason appearance since 1992.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Pirates fans pack Market Square on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, for a playoff rally as the team prepares to make its first postseason appearance since 1992.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole gets a high five as fans pack Market Square on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, for a playoff rally as the team prepares to make its first postseason appearance since 1992.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Pirates fan David Vensel of Millvale raises the Jolly Roger as fans pack Market Square on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, for a playoff rally as the team prepares to make its first postseason appearance since 1992.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
The Pirate Parrot gets fans fired up in Market Square on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, during a playoff rally.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Addison Snode, 4, waves a Pirates flag while getting a better view with the help of her mother, Sheila Snode, of Cranberry as fans pack Market Square on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, for a rally.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Pirates fans pack Market Square on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, for a playoff rally as the team prepares to make its first postseason appearance since 1992.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Starling Marte gets a champagne shower from Josh Harrison, as Pirates teammates celebrate after defeating the Cubs to clinch a berth in the post-season Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

It might have been the millionth time I'd asked, though you'd have gotten the sense from Adam LaRoche's squint that it was the million-and-first.

Why, came the question again several summers ago, did he always sleepwalk through April and May with an average around .160 and a sickly-looking strikeout every other at-bat?

“Dude,” he began the last time he'd ever need to answer it. “When this season's over, what will my numbers be?”

I replied without hesitation: “You'll hit .275 with 25 homers and 80 RBI. You always do.”

“Yep,” he came back.

Put his right hand on my shoulder, smiled and strolled off to the cage.

Ever since, anytime a baseball person has waxed philosophic about how you are what you are over 162 games, I've had no doubt. It's true. Jeff Locke's an All-Star one half, pruned from the playoff roster the next. Rob Mackowiak's a doubleheader legend one day, deservedly picking splinters the next. There are just too many chances for reality to bungee-cord everything back to where it's supposed to be.

And so, here we are.

These Pirates open their first playoffs in 21 years Tuesday night with a wonderful wild-card matchup against the Reds, and it's going to be — regardless of outcome — a beautiful thing even beyond the catharsis for Pittsburgh's baseball fans. It'll be one team against one other team on one night with all 162 of those games at stake.

Advantage: Nobody, really.

Sure, the Pirates have been third-best of the Central Division's three playoff teams over the past two months, albeit not by much. Since a 9-0 tear through Cincinnati, Seattle, Anaheim and Milwaukee pushed them to 51-30 on the final day of June, they've gone undergone a Less-Than-Epic Leveling Off at 29-26 compared to the Cardinals' 35-21 and the Reds' 30-23.

Put another way, for these two months, the Pirates have been — with apologies to Dennis Green — exactly who we thought they'd be entering the year. Basically a .500 team with above-average pitching, below-average hitting and sound defense.

But to me, that begs these concurrent questions: Have the Pirates already played out their best baseball? Or are they actually better now, despite the disparity in records?

Clint Hurdle doesn't blink with his answer to the latter: “Yes, absolutely. With the additions of personnel, the continued growth, the challenges that had to be met playing through June, July and August and playing meaningful games through September. The meaningful games, new experiences ... all of it adds layers to mental toughness and a mental discipline and a physical toughness.”

Me, I'll just stand behind the Law of LaRoche: The Pirates are exactly what the final standings showed they are, a 94-68 team eminently capable of competing with anyone.

Moreover, the variables that would worry you most in a leveling off like this, the kind that lead to formally trademarked Epic Collapses, aren't in play:

• The rotation is actually stronger now, I'd submit, lest anyone forget the halcyon days of James McDonald and Jonathan Sanchez.

With Locke out, the playoff quartet of Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole is as good as any the franchise has had in a generation. On top of that, in part because everyone but Cole missed a month or more of the regular season, all are still sharp: The collective ERA of those four in the final month was 3.63, and their strikeouts per nine innings — a reliable barometer of fatigue — held up at a healthy 9.58.

• Andrew McCutchen was a de facto catalyst for the Epic Collapses, his stats plunging post-break both summers. But the reverse was true this year: He batted .339 in the second half against .302 in the first, with 11 home runs to top his first-half-total by one, all en route to what had better be an MVP honor this fall.

Don't underestimate that: As Cutch goes, so goes the offense. And batting practice line drive to the face notwithstanding, he's still going.

• Marlon Byrd has been as advertised, and Justin Morneau has been adequate since they were acquired at the deadline.

Don't underestimate that, either: When the 4-5-6 in Hurdle's order struggled before the trades, the public was clamoring for Andrew Lambo. Now Byrd and Morneau offer stability, even as Hurdle can still mix and match by injecting, say, Gaby Sanchez against lefties.

Add to that Starling Marte regaining full use of the hand, and Neil Walker rediscovering his power stroke, and that's a solid 1-6 with the good eye of Russell Martin at 7.

It's absolutely, to borrow Hurdle's term, a better lineup now.

• The bullpen is murkier, of course. From April through August, you could stop sweating after the sixth inning, but not so much anymore. Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon, for different reasons, haven't been themselves.

And yet, the bullpen remains a strength, thanks largely to the near-perfection of Tony Watson. Between Watson, Justin Wilson and others, Hurdle can cobble together outs even if it isn't per the standard script.

Intangibly?

Wow, this can't still be a topic after all this resilient group has shown — even through the Less-Than-Epic Leveling Off — in bouncing back in the biggest of ways.

Loved how Marte put it last week when I asked him to describe this team: “It's real.”

Which makes the Pirates no different than anyone they'll face this fall.

Buckle up. It's all about to get real.

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