BRADENTON -- If it comes to pass that last year was the moment things began to turn around for the Pittsburgh Pirates, outfielder Nate McLouth will be able to speak about life before and after.
McLouth is back with the franchise that drafted him following a three-year stay with the Atlanta Braves. And he likes what he sees from a team that looks nothing like it did in 2008, when McLouth won a Gold Glove and made the All-Star team while patrolling center field for the Pirates.
"Not that it was bad before, because it wasn't," he said Saturday before the Pirates hosted the Baltimore Orioles in their final game this spring at McKechnie Field. "Clint (Hurdle, the Pirates
manager) brings just a ton of energy. He's funny, he keeps things light but serious.
"It's just a really good atmosphere."
It's one the Pirates hope follows them north next week when they open the regular season Thursday at PNC Park against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Optimism hasn't been in supply lately for the Pirates, one of baseball's most tradition-rich franchises that has not had a winning season since reaching Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series.
That includes last season, when the team won 72 games. But Pittsburgh was in first place in the middle of July, breathing some life back into the franchise and leading some to believe that maybe, just maybe, this is the year when things change.
"We're going to hold on to that thought of finishing everything we do," Hurdle said following Saturday's 6-6 tie with the Orioles, "the pitch, the at-bat, the inning, the play, the game and the season."
This spring had its share of moments, beginning when the team finalized a trade with the New York Yankees after its first workout to bring veteran pitcher A.J. Burnett over to front the pitching staff. Not long after his arrival, however, Burnett fractured a bone near his right eye while participating in a bunting tournament and didn't fire an inning in a Grapefruit League game.
He underwent surgery in early March and could return to the team as early as May. Another offseason acquisition, lefty Erik Bedard, will take the ball Opening Day.
"First game of the season, everybody (gets butterflies)," Bedard said after allowing four runs in five innings against the Orioles. "But it's another game. We have 162 games. Everybody makes a big deal about Opening Day, but we always have another game after that."
The Pirates' rotation got off to a fine start but hit a rocky patch during the last two weeks. Both James McDonald and Kevin Correia allowed 10 earned runs in a start, while Charlie Morton, who is recovering from October hip surgery, will begin the season on the disabled list in order to get more work.
The highlight of the spring has been Jeff Karstens, who will start the Pirates' second game of the season against the Phillies. The righty takes a 2.08 ERA into his fourth start of the spring today against the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin.
Four days after their ace-to-be went under the knife in Pittsburgh, the Pirates celebrated better news behind the right-field wall at McKechnie Field when they announced a six-year, $51.1 million contract for All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen.
The money didn't seem to dim McCutchen's focus -- he takes a .326 batting average and 11 RBIs into today's final Grapefruit League game.
Flanking him will be Alex Presley and Jose Tabata, a pair of players who have the potential to make Pittsburgh's outfield one of its strength. But they have never played a full season in the majors.
Presley, 26, a leftfielder, was the Pirates' Minor League Player of the Year in 2010 but has appeared in just 71 major-league games. He hit leadoff most of the spring and is hitting .333 with two home runs, four steals and .407 on-base percentage.
Tabata, 23, was limited to 91 games last season because of hamstring injuries but stole 16 bases and hit. 266 when he was healthy.
Presley and Tabata should hit first and second and attempt to set up run producers such as McCutchen and second baseman Neil Walker, the latter of whom drove in 83 runs last year and is hitting .269 with six RBIs this spring.
Walker's partner up the middle will be shortstop Clint Barmes, signed in the offseason as a free agent. Another pickup, veteran Rod Barajas, will handle the catching.
The rest of the infield isn't as settled. Left-handed Garrett Jones and another new face, right-handed swinging Casey McGehee, may platoon at first base, while Pedro Alvarez will be the team's third baseman on Opening Day.
Alavarez, however, has struck out 21 times in 46 at-bats this spring after hitting .191 through an injury-plagued '11 campaign. Pirates' personnel have voiced support for Alvarez, but with McGehee, who played third for the Milwaukee Brewers, in the fold, time will tell how much rope the team gives Alvarez to work through his kinks.
One of the biggest stories this spring has been prospect and corner infielder Matt Hague, who hit his team-best sixth home run during the Pirates' split-squad game Saturday in Fort Myers. Hague, a career .302 hitter in 462 professional games, is battling with Yamaico Navarro and Josh Harrison for one of two bench spots on the 25-man roster.
Now it's time to look forward, where the Pirates will try and stop their historic streak of 19 straight losing seasons.
And if they don't, Hurdle said it won't be for lack of trying.
"This is the hardest-working group of men that I've ever had in spring training. That's not say others haven't worked hard," he said. "But these guys ... their preparation, all the things we've tried to put into place, they've been receptive.
"We've done all the work we can do. Now it's time to connect the dots come game time."