Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Sports

Pirates still far from satisfied

PITTSBURGH — Where most saw misery and chaos, Clint Hurdle saw something else entirely.

When Hurdle took over as 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 tonight's wild-card game against the 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 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 them home-field advantage for the wild card, the Pirates have to press reset while trying not to get caught up in hype not seen in the city since Barry Bonds bolted for the Giants 21 years ago.

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

Neither do 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 leading MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and ace-in-training Gerrit Cole.

Perhaps it's fitting Francisco Liriano will start the team's most important game in a generation. The left-hander signed a two-year deal with the Pirates last winter that turned out to be one of baseball's best bargains, and he has found a home in a clubhouse that wasn't always the most welcoming.

"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."

The Reds will try to make the Pirates wait a year before taking the next step. They got a boost with the return of right-hander Johnny Cueto, who missed most of the season with back problems but has been solid since his return Sept. 16. They are likely to have second baseman Brandon Phillips, who left Saturday's game with a leg injury.

Cueto has been clutch vs. the Pirates. He is 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA in 21 career starts against Pittsburgh and 8-2, 1.90 at PNC Park.

"I don't know how to explain it," Cueto said. "I just do my job."

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