Pittsburgh Pirates | Start of season brings new hope for team determined to win

Pittsburgh can finally stop talking about losing streak, start winning

jlembo@bradenton.comMarch 31, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Arms folded as he held court inside the Pittsburgh Pirates' home clubhouse at McKechnie Field this past week, A.J. Burnett answered any question thrown his way.

Yes, he felt fine following his final start of the spring. Yes, it was good to throw to Russell Martin again. Yes, he was excited about making the first opening day start of his career.

Then came a question about the 2012 Pirates.

"I'm not going to answer any more 'last year' questions," Burnett said. "Sorry."

Few teams are as ready to start from scratch as the Pirates, who recently wrapped their 45th spring training in Bradenton. Though they have set the bar for losing seasons -- they've strung together a record 20 heading into Monday's opener against the visiting Chicago Cubs -- what happened last summer in the Steel City was especially galling.

Pittsburgh defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks on Aug. 6 last year, raising their record to 62-46.

The end result? A 79-83 fin

ish, making the Pirates the first team in baseball history to record a losing season after being at least 16 games above .500 after 108 games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

"Guys learned from last year. You can only take so much," said Burnett, whose moratorium on 2012 questions didn't last long. "And I've mentioned it before: There were a lot of bitter faces leaving that clubhouse. We're ready to move on from that."

So are these Pirates any better than those Pirates?

Manager Clint Hurdle seems to think so. For starters, he points to his starting pitchers, beginning with the 36-year-old Burnett, who won 16 games last season and posted his lowest ERA in seven years (3.51) despite missing all of spring training after breaking a bone under his right eye.

The been-there, done-that Burnett isn't just a staff ace, but a leader in the Pirates clubhouse. He is one of the few whose résumé includes postseason experience, and he made black and yellow "Preparation For Domination" sleeveless T-shirts that he handed out to teammates this spring.

"I never considered myself that type of player, but when I came over here, I became a leader," said Burnett, who was traded from the New York Yankees in February 2012.

"And every time I take the mound, I take the mound for these guys. I mentioned it a million times last year: I'm not here for my stats. I'm trying to win ballgames and bring a championship to Pittsburgh, and we'll see what happens. Just going to go out there and try to lead by example and be able to motivate these guys and help any way that I can. That's what keeps me coming back every day, man.

"I love pitching, I love the game, I love to compete. That's the main thing. But when you get to compete for a clubhouse like this, guys like this, it means a lot."

Wandy Rodriguez, a late-season addition from Houston last year, will follow Burnett. Each eclipsed 200 innings last year.

"It all goes back to using your bullpen when you want to, not when you have to. You've got to get innings out of your starting pitching," Hurdle said. "It's not just six and three (earned runs) or less. It's not the quality start; that's not what you're looking for. It's seven ups and downs and give you a chance to win and keep you in the ball game."

James McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez and Jeff Locke round out the rotation, and the Pirates expect Francisco Liriano (broken non-pitching arm) and Charlie Morton (Tommy John surgery) to contribute when they are healthy.

Backing them is a bullpen featuring Jason Grilli in the closer's role. The well-traveled Grilli, 36, excelled as Joel Hanrahan's set-up guy last year, totaling 32 holds while striking out 90 in 58 2/3 innings.

Hanrahan was dealt to Boston, however, meaning Grilli will get a chance to add his career saves total of five.

Mark Melancon, one of the guys obtained in the Hanrahan deal who had 20 saves in 2011 with Houston, will serve as Grilli's chief set-up guy, and righties Chris Leroux and Jared Hughes are the middle relievers.

Left-handed specialist Tony Watson returns after limiting lefties to a .183 clip and seven extra-base hits in 93 at-bats last year. Assisting him will be fellow lefty Justin Wilson, who appeared in just eight games last year but pitched to a 1.15 ERA in nine appearances this spring.

"It gives us an opportunity to use (Watson) in more leverage situations than maybe we were capable of in the past," Hurdle said of having two lefties. "If the game's on the line in the sixth and I need a left-hander, you can use (Watson) now, because you've got another left-hander. Sometimes you've got to answer that bell early and not worry about the bell later."

All the pitchers will be throwing to a new catcher in Martin. Though Martin swatted a career-best 21 home runs last year with the Yankees, the Pirates are hoping he can slow down the opponents' running game after Pittsburgh threw out just 11 percent of basestealers last season.

Martin threw out 24 percent as a Yankee.

"What I've seen from our team is just guys that are willing to go out there and do the work," said Martin, who has been to the playoffs five times, "and go out there and compete. And I've seen glimpse of where we want to be. I don't think we're where we want to be yet, but I think we have the potential and guys that are willing to do work and go out there and perform."

Forming the Pirates' core is the trio of centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, second baseman Neil Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez. While McCutchen has become a breakout star, all three are homegrown first-round draft picks set to begin their fourth season together.

Another stalwart is Garrett Jones, who will platoon with Gaby Sanchez at first. Jones has appeared in at least 145 games in each of the past three seasons after coming to spring training in 2009 as a non-roster invitee, and he established career highs in home runs (27) and RBIs (86) last year.

"The way we're playing and the way the guys are working, they have an idea," said Burnett, a World Series champion with the Yankees in 2009. "They're not young kids anymore. They have three years, four years, five years -- that's the time you start figuring stuff out. It's on a lot of these guys to start figuring that stuff out, and you see that process happening."

Will it be enough to reverse the last two seasons, when the Pirates' fast starts have been undone by even faster fades? If it is, Burnett will likely be willing to talk a lot more about 2013 than he was about 2012.

"I just think guys pressed too hard (last year). Guys tried to fix it all themselves, and it's just a team game," Burnett said. "People say that every spring -- 'We've got a good team, we're tied for first,' whatever it is. But we've got a special thing here, and I think the more the 25 guys on this team believe that for 162 games, that's going to put it together. You can't believe it for half a season. ... (If) you've got 25 guys who know how good we are, we can take off.

"We'll see."

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