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Kovacevic: On A.J., Byrd, dangerous curves

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates manager Clint Hurdle removes pitcher A.J. Burnett from the game during the third inning after the Cardinals scored seven runs Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, in Game 1 of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates manager Clint Hurdle removes pitcher A.J. Burnett from the game during the third inning after the Cardinals scored seven runs Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013,  in Game 1 of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez connects on a solo home run to break up the no-hit bid during the eighth inning against the Cardinals on Monday, Oct. 7, 2013, in Game 4 of the National League Division Series at PNC Park.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez connects on a solo home run to break up the no-hit bid during the eighth inning against the Cardinals on Monday, Oct. 7, 2013, in Game 4 of the National League Division Series at PNC Park.

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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Dejan Kovacevic
Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, 10:45 p.m.
 

One final flip through the scorebook, as well as penciling in some of what might lie ahead ...

Best thing about the 2013 Pirates: That's easy. Everything. Pretty much all they touched turned to gold until they couldn't touch Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright.

Worst thing: Ask me again at, oh, 7:37 p.m. St. Louis time.

MVP: Andrew McCutchen.

Other candidates: Maybe Paul Goldschmidt, maybe Freddie Freeman, but maybes don't cut it.

Manager of the Year: Clint Hurdle.

Executive of the Year: Neal Huntington.

Colombian Scouting Supervisor/Bogota Bank President of the Year: Orlando Covo. Hey, when you're good, you're good. The guy really does both.

Breakthrough game I: In Anaheim, Grilli whiffs the great Mike Trout to sweep the Angels, part of a nine-game winning streak that clammed up any Epic Collapse III talk.

Breakthrough game II: Don't let it go unappreciated the Pirates won a playoff round this fall. Yeah, the wild card's one game, but it was every bit the winner-take-all setting as St. Louis. And the Pirates not only clubbed the Reds but also got Dusty Baker canned.

I believe in: Jordy Mercer at short.

I don't believe in: A Jason Grilli sequel. Sorry.

Unsung on the field: Tony Watson.

Unsung off the field: Bob Nutting. Not sorry.

Pregame moment: Kevin McClatchy got his due. Man couldn't run a sports franchise, but he cared when few others did.

In-game moment: Johnny Cueto drops the ball. I don't care what caused it.

Postgame moment: Cutch points to the heavens for 82. He gets it.

Grade A teaching: Ray Searage isn't a secret around baseball anymore. Might be time for Huntington to break from his policy of retaining coaches on year-to-year contracts.

Grade F teaching: Name one hitter who improved under Jay Bell.

Top inside signing priority: Keep Marlon Byrd. I don't want to hear about Gregory Polanco until he's blowing the door off the hinges. Byrd's got a big bat and, at age 36, shouldn't require a mega-deal to retain.

Top outside signing priority: First base. Always first base.

A.J. yea: Burnett's more of a pain to management than most realize, but he's also the fire behind this team. Let him walk, and you'd better be sure that'll come from someone else.

A.J. nay: If he refused to pitch in relief for Game 5 — and he ducked questions the past three days, so we don't know — then see ya.

Three long winters: Mark Melancon, Neil Walker, Starling Marte.

Three short winters: Pedro Alvarez, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton.

Hello: Jameson Taillon. He'll be 2014's Cole. Bright kid with top-of-the-rotation talent.

Goodbye: Garrett Jones. Perpetually the question, never the answer.

Best single play: Cutch to Russell Martin, with Justin Morneau doing his best Derek Jeter in between.

Best repeated play: Just everything Martin.

Lock up: Alvarez and Walker should be — and will be, from what I hear — approached aggressively with long-term extension offers.

Release: I loved the Morneau move, but I loved his nine August home runs for the Twins even more. They were his last.

Business proposition I: Surpass 20,000 in full-season ticket equivalents for the first time. That'll guarantee steady sellouts and a competitive payroll.

Business proposition II: Draft position won't be so nice anymore. Shift amateur monies to Latin America — yes, Cuba, too — and sign the next Aroldis Chapman or Yasiel Puig.

Monkey lost: Brewers.

Monkey gained: Tie, Padres and curveballs.

Old-school stat: Everyone complained about it, and it's true the Pirates were terrible with runners in scoring position at .229, ranking 27th in the majors. They also were .227 with bases loaded. Compare that to the Cardinals' .370, and that's your division title.

New-wave stat: The Pirates' pitchers had the best ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio in the majors at 1.95, and next-highest wasn't close, with the Rockies at 1.58.

Is that a bigger reason than much-hyped shifts that the Pirates converted 28.5 percent of all batted balls in play into outs, fifth most in the majors?

Moving quote: Cutch, two nights ago: “People in Pittsburgh will remember this season forever.”

Absurd quote: Hurdle, asked to pick a win total in March: “My focus is the playoffs. If you're going to grab numbers, you take 95 because 95 has a really good chance of getting you in.”

The man's clearly a fool. They won 97.

Countdown: 171 days till the Cubs show.

Count up: The Streak is at one.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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