Cincinnati Reds vs. Pittsburgh Pirates: Bucs look for long postseason run after 21 years absence

Manager Clint Hurdle put fire, hope in team

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Where most saw misery and chaos, Clint Hurdle saw something else entirely.

The day Hurdle took over as the Pittsburgh Pirates manager in December, 2010, he spoke about electrifying the city. He preached optimism, then went out and practiced it every day while talking about a vision that went far beyond returning a moribund franchise to respectability.

It's why Hurdle isn't satisfied after leading Pittsburgh to a 94-68 record and its first playoff berth in 21 years. It's why he doesn't view Tuesday night's wild-card game against the Cincinnati Reds as the culmination of three years of patience, progress and pragmatism.

Press Hurdle on how detailed he allowed his vision to get and he leans forward for emphasis.

"To win a sixth World Series," he said.

First things first.

The team that spent all summer defying expectations now must find a way to do it again when it hosts the first playoff game in Pittsburgh in 7,660 days. Coming off a weekend sweep in Cincinnati that gave the Pirates home-field advantage for the one-and-done wild card, Pittsburgh has to press reset while trying not to get caught up in the kind of hype not seen in the city since Barry Bonds bolted for San Francisco 21 years ago.

"What happened over the weekend," Hurdle said, "doesn't matter."

Neither does the six months that came before it, though Hurdle believes his team has all the hallmarks required to make sure this postseason appearance will extend beyond a cameo.

"I like the grit factor," he said, "and the lessons we've learned."

Lessons hard won on a roster that is baseball's version of Ellis Island, a mixture of veterans looking to revive their careers and an exciting young core that includes MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and ace-in-training Gerrit Cole.

Perhaps it's fitting that left-hander Francisco Liriano (16-8, 3.02 ERA) will start the team's most important game in a generation. Allowed to walk in free agency after an underwhelming stint with the Chicago White Sox in 2012, Liriano signed a two-year deal with the Pirates last winter and turned out to be one of the best bargains in baseball.

Fueled by a slightly overhauled delivery and a devastating slider, Liriano rediscovered the form that made him an All-Star in 2006. Even more, he's found a home in a clubhouse that wasn't always the most welcoming in the majors.

"In the beginning, when people came here, it was more of a rehabilitation center," McCutchen said. "I mean, it's true. Guys came here toward the end of their career, saying this is going to boost them up, maybe they can have a big year so they can go somewhere else."

Not so much anymore.

The arrival of pitcher A.J. Burnett in 2012 and catcher Russell Martin last winter signaled a sea change. Both players have World Series rings. Both still had something to prove. Both wanted to be part of something significant.

They weren't alone. Former AL MVP Justin Morneau agreed to leave the Minnesota Twins after a decade to spend the final month of the season in Pittsburgh. Journeyman outfielder Marlon Byrd raced from New York to PNC Park for a chance to reach the postseason for the first time in his 12-year career.

Their paths, much like Liriano's, shadow the franchise's fall and subsequent rise. Once considered one of the game's future stars, Liriano spent five years searching for a new identity after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2007. He has found one in a ballpark where he is 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA this season.

"He's a Pirate," Hurdle said. "There's a lot of Pirate in every guy in there. They've got a flawed manager, though."

As a young outfielder, Hurdle was a touted as the “Phenom on the Year” on the cover of Sports Illustrated before his rookie season with the Kansas City Royals in 1978. But he never lived up to the hype.

The Reds traded pitcher Scott Brown for Hurdle in 1981 and tried to convert him to a catcher, just as Johnny Bench’s career was winding down. But the spring training experiment failed. Hurdle played 19 games in the outfield, hitting .206, and the Reds released him.

By 1987, at age 30, Hurdle’s playing career was over.

As a manager, though, Hurdle has proven to be a perfect fit in Pittsburgh. Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, Hurdle believes his team has turned a corner.

"I think we're a perfect snapshot of our city," Hurdle said. "We're not perfect. We get down, we're going to get up. We get knocked down again, we're going to get up again.

"We'll continue to fight for what we believe in."

 

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