Kovacevic: These Pirates have spring in step
BRADENTON, Fla. — Gaby Sanchez doesn't file away everything he hears at first base. No one at his position could. It's the game's fencepost, its water cooler, home to countless conversations.
But it doesn't sound like he'll soon forget one comment from an opposing first base coach about a week ago.
“A couple innings had gone by, and we had guys laying out for balls, busting it down the line on grounders … you know, the way we usually are,” Sanchez was recalling this weekend at McKechnie Field. “And the coach says to me, ‘Man, you guys stepped off the bus ready to play, huh?'”
The response came quickly: “Coach, we've only got one way we know how to play. We can't just wait until March 31st to start that.”
Yeah, meet your 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates, Grapefruit League warriors.
Well, collectively, of course. The next team to hoist a giant grapefruit or cactus over its head at the end of spring will be the first. Even individually, it's not just that all the players' batting averages, home runs and ERAs should be thrown out. They are thrown out.
But the sum of the parts, the preparation, the attitude, the approach?
That matters to the utmost, the men inside the game will tell you. It's where a team's personality is pieced together, where its confidence is created.
And however chaotic those pieces can appear in coming together, be very sure they can be found all over this camp ...
‘If that guy's doing it ...'
Andrew McCutchen stepped into the box Friday and heard a rousing ovation, which of course, isn't unusual anymore. Except that a big portion of this one came from the third base grandstand at McKechnie that was dominated by with Philadelphia fans.
Imagine if that were Sidney Crosby.
Or, for that matter, if it were June.
“I'll bet they won't do that in the regular season,” Cutch would say later with a laugh. “No chance.”
Maybe not, but whatever the MVP did to earn that respect was soon justified four times over: He launched a solo shot well beyond the left-field fence moments after that ovation, then sprinted all-out on a bouncer to short to force the Phillies to sweat a little in turning a double play, then bounced again to short and this time beat out an infield single when Jimmy Rollins felt compelled to rush the play.
Think that was an accident?
For good measure, Cutch robbed Cody Asche of extra bases with a precarious sliding catch.
“If that guy's doing it,” Clint Barmes observed afterward in motioning toward the locker marked 22, “everyone had better be.”
‘Kid's going to be great'
Gregory Polanco, the elite prospect who just might be next in that class, worked a 2-0 count off the Rays' Grant Balfour the other day in Port Charlotte. So he set himself for the fastball. That's how it goes in the minors, where pitchers don't trust their offspeed enough to throw it when behind. They've got no choice but to go with heat.
One problem: Balfour's 36. He's pitched 463 games in the bigs. Knows what he's doing. So when the kid sat dead red, the old guy dropped a 12-to-6 curve — a pitch he hardly ever uses — right into the catcher's mitt. Polanco's knees collapsed almost as much as his face cringed.
He'd wind up whiffing.
“The kid's going to be great, no question,” an American League scout watching that day assessed. “But you'd think he'd never seen a pitcher throw a 2-0 curve. I mean in his life! And maybe he never did.”
Polanco's view: “I feel ready. But I know I have to ask questions and learn. Every day. Ask my teammates. It's OK.”
He was sent to minor-league camp Friday and will open with Triple-A Indianapolis. By the time he arrives, he'll be a lot better than OK.
‘I just love this'
Bill Virdon, the Pirates' center fielder a half-century ago and still a vibrant, fully uniformed spring instructor here at age 82, was the last man off the field after the exhibition Saturday.
He always is.
A rickety knee's slowed him a bit, so he isn't shagging flies this spring.
“Not as much,” Virdon corrected through a wry grin. “I'm still out there, still here. I just love this. I love every minute of it. Especially now. It's wonderful to be part of this.”
‘Thank you, Mr. Hurdle!'
Clint Hurdle is dressed head-to-toe by 7 a.m., reviewing lineups, injuries, special pitching sessions and other springtime fare. Even if it's a home game at McKechnie, he won't get back to his condo until sunset at the soonest.
In Port Charlotte on Thursday, he'd set out to study every swing of his players' batting practice from directly behind the cage. He's got a hitting coach, but he was one of those before taking this job, and it's never really left him.
Upon emerging from the dugout to begin, he hears from a fan: “Mr. Hurdle! Mr. Hurdle! Can you sign this, please?”
“I've got to watch my guys hit,” he answers with a gentle smile. “I'll be back.”
Once every swing's been swung, Hurdle does head back to the dugout and looks up for that fan, still in the same seat. The fan, following autograph-hound custom, tosses down a ball, then a pen. But the pen misfired and fell to the cement.
The fan couldn't see this beneath the lip of the dugout, but Hurdle looked down at that pen as if it were a million miles away, let out a loud exhale, then bent over to pick it up. And before his face could be seen again by the fan, the smile was right back in place.
“Thank you, Mr. Hurdle!”
“You're most welcome!”
The commitment starts there.
‘Gave him a big hug'
Jordy Mercer is the new regular shortstop, and he'll be backed up by the old regular shortstop, who also happened to be the guy replacing him for defensive purposes in the late innings down the stretch in 2013.
Awkward at all?
“Are you kidding?” Mercer playfully snapped back. “With Clint Barmes around?”
OK, but in case there was any doubt, on the day Barmes reported to spring training with the vets, fresh off signing an extension, it was Mercer who met him at the door and “gave him a big hug. I told him how happy I was to have him back.”
‘He's that guy'
One player seems to stand tallest each spring, even if that sometimes pans out to be no more than a Mark Johnson, Freddie Garcia or Ronny Paulino.
The eye-opener here now?
“Oh, no doubt, Travis Snider. He's that guy,” Neil Walker answered without a hitch. “And this isn't just like he's on some hot streak. This is about him being healthy and doing what we all know he can.”
Snider didn't get it done last season. He batted .215, including .205 as a pinch-hitter, and homered five times in 216 at-bats. It didn't help that, from July onward, he was bugged by a bum left foot that never allowed him to plant properly and knocked his straight swing into more of a scooping path.
He's a modest 8 for 26 so far, but there's been solid contact all through, even if some discomfort from the offseason toe surgery lingers.
“It's a work in progress,” Snider said Saturday after going 0 for 2. “What counts down here is keeping everything going in the direction you want.”
With that, he and his heavily wrapped toe headed back out to the field for extra running.
Spring is a season of change, but nothing could top the metamorphosis mentioned by the perpetually cerebral Charlie Morton after his five quality innings Saturday vs. minor-leaguers at Pirate City.
“I want to become angrier,” he mused.
Uh, sure. Nicest guy on the planet wants to add a snarl to his arsenal. Got it.
“No, I'm serious,” Morton begged. “It doesn't have to be through words or actions. You'll see.”
‘Don't mean nuthin' '
Andrew Lambo sat with hands clasped, head down at his stall Wednesday in Fort Myers after another 0 for 2. It's been a rough spring, all the rougher because he's expected to enter his first full season in the majors as the first baseman.
Chris Dickerson, a 31-year-old veteran competing for backup duty, just might benefit personally if Lambo were to fail. But that was no part of the equation as he approached Lambo from across the locker room and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Let me tell you what Buck Showalter once told me,” Dickerson said, as if about to impart words of great wisdom. “Spring training? It don't mean nuthin'!”
With that, both burst into laughter.
Hey, maybe it does mean something.
‘Here to play ball'
Gerrit Cole had a couple encounters similar to Sanchez's with the first base coach. But, unlike Sanchez, he wasn't laughing them off.
Seems at least one opponent commented to him a week ago, in a decidedly mocking tone, about the Pirates' extra effort in the exhibition season.
“You know, you look at some of the scores of these games we've been playing, and a lot of them are lopsided. Well, that isn't an accident,” Cole said, the sweat still dripping from his brow after four no-nonsense innings Wednesday in Fort Myers. “We're here to play ball. And like I said to that guy, ‘Hey, you're on the other side of that ball, man.'”
Fifteen days until it matters.
Or, it's never stopped mattering.