Hurdle: Bucs mentally ready for one-game playoff
CINCINNATI — Clint Hurdle often says “the game doesn't know the game is important.” The Pirates manager uses the psychological trick to encourage players to relax through context. But everyone in the Pirate clubhouse knows Tuesday's wild-card affair is the most important game in the franchise's past two decades.
One of the challenges facing the Reds and Pirates in the one-game playoff is not of the physical variety but of the psychological: How do players avoid trying to do too much in the one-game playoff? How do players remain focused and not let the moment overwhelm them at PNC Park?
With such high stakes, Hurdle finds himself playing sports psychologist as much as manager.
“We all know what happens when you overcook things, so don't put added pressure on yourself.” Hurdle said. “There's different reset mechanisms. The term is transferring — transferring your focus, getting your focus off the big picture and being task specific. That's what we encourage them to do.”
Hurdle identified several examples of “reset mechanisms.”
• Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria steps out of the box and looks down at the left-field foul pole to reset his focus.
• For a pitcher, resetting might mean stepping off the mound and picking up and throwing down a rosin bag.
• Many hitters step out of the batter's box and take deep inhales and exhales to slow heartbeats. Said Hurdle: “There are actually breathing patterns we talk about during the offseason. We brought (specialists) in. It's called four-by-four breathing.”
What there is no reset mechanism for is experience, and the Pirates have less postseason experience than the Reds, who fell one win short of advancing to the NLCS last season.
“What you did previously doesn't matter, and what you didn't do previously doesn't matter,” Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “Now you're starting the season all over. People are afraid of the one-game playoff. Well, that's not the way I would have chosen to get in there, but we're in. How many teams are in? Five? Right? We're one of five. You have to look at it like that.”
Francisco Liriano, the starter Tuesday for the Pirates, has appeared in two postseason games, allowing five runs in 7 2⁄3 innings while with the Twins.
“There's no simulator to get into,” Hurdle said. “But what we've had is close to 95 games decided by two runs or less this season. We've had big games, big crowds and that all helps.”
Two Pirates players have experience in playing one-game playoffs: Justin Morneau and Clint Barmes.
Morneau played in a one-game playoff with the Twins in 2009 vs. Detroit. The Twins won to advance to the postseason.
“You look at all the coverage for the playoffs and (media promoting) ‘Who is going to be a hero?' where in reality people who try to do the same, as opposed to the ones who try to do more, they usually do pretty well,” Morneau said. “The thing I learned from playing in that game is trying not to do anything different.”
Of course that's easier said than done, says Barmes who was part of the 2007 Rockies team beat the Padres in a 163rd game.
“It's a whole different feel,” Barmes said. “You're in every pitch. The crowd is in every pitch. It's exciting. It's fun. But at the same time, trying not to do much, guys staying within in themselves is (tough).”