- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Eventually, those five-alarm migraines passed. Eventually, the shock wore off. Eventually last winter, when the Pittsburgh Pirates awoke from their second straight late-season nightmare, it began to dawn on them:
For 110 games last season, they were a hell of a team.
"You know," said their gritty second baseman Neil Walker, "when you're going through it, when you're getting dragged through the mud and nothing seems to go your way, it seems like nothing could get worse. But then, when the season ends and you take a couple of weeks and you start to think about it, you try to pull the positives out of the season. And you realize there were some special things that happened."
Not as special as it could have been, of course. Not as special as it would have been if they had just finished what they started. But let's remind you where the Pirates were two-thirds of the way through last season:
• They were 16 games over .500 -- for the first time in 20 years.
• They had a better record than the team that would go on to win the World Series -- the Giants.
• They had a better record than the Cardinals, Orioles, Rays, Angels and the other team that played in the World Series -- the Tigers.
And then hoo boy. For the second season in a row, the Buccos stumbled into a cliff dive they never saw coming.
Of the last 52 games they played, they lost 36. Somehow or other. When the days on the schedule ran out on them, they became, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the first team in history to finish with a losing record after being at least 16 games over .500 after 108 games.
The. Very. First. Ever.
But five months later, as the Bradenton palm leaves flap in the breeze, these guys are ready to try again. And as they sort through it now, as they try to figure out which were the real Pirates, they keep coming back to this:
When you play that well for that long, it can't be a fluke. Can it?
"We know it was real," said their oratorically inspired manager Clint Hurdle. "We could see it, hear it, touch it, feel it. We beat good pitchers. We beat good teams. We won series. But again, we have an understanding after two seasons of 162, that [your record after] 162 is what's real."
Well, the next set of 162 awaits in a couple of weeks. And the projections we've seen don't paint a rosy portrait of the Pirates' chances to pull the plug on the longest streak of losing seasons (20) in American professional sports history.
But if you look back at those first 110 games, you know it isn't impossible either. So here they come: Five Reasons This Could Be the Year in Pittsburgh:
They learn their lessons
When you endure the torture this team just endured, you're supposed to learn from it, right? The Pirates are convinced that something good can come of this.
"They say that when you go through something like that, it makes you stronger," said A.J. Burnett. "And it’s true."
But when the men who run this team took a long, analytical look at what happened, they determined it was going to take more than just newfound inner strength to address what went wrong. So they've spent the last month focusing on stuff like ...
• Better at-bats: Hurdle and new hitting coach Jay Bell have spoken a lot this spring about the mental side of hitting and the need -- for a team that finished 27th in the major leagues in on-base percentage but struck out more than all but two teams in baseball -- to have better at-bats. "With the number of strikeouts we had," Hurdle said, "we basically allowed the other team to play catch for three innings a game."
• Controlling the running game: When you've just allowed the most stolen bases in baseball (154) and thrown out the fewest base stealers (only 19 of 173, or 11 percent), it's time for changes. So in comes Russell Martin, he of the 30 percent career caught-stealing ratio, in place of Rod Barajas (just 6 percent last year). But the Pirates have also, in the manager's words, "stapled the pitchers to the catchers" and asked their pitchers to work extensively on holding runners, varying their patterns and working on their pickoff moves. The result: They've already picked off more runners this spring (eight) than all last season (five).
• More innings from the rotation: You can't practice inning-eating in spring training, but you can stress "more command of both sides of the plate," Hurdle said, so that a team whose starters finished 21st in innings pitched could get those pitchers deeper into the game. That would "allow us to use our bullpen when we want to instead of when we have to," Hurdle said.
• Better baserunning: Although the Pirates graded out as a decent baserunning team last season (10th in the big leagues, according to Baseball Info Solutions), they were thrown out in 42 percent of their stolen-base attempts, the worst rate in baseball. They also had an offense that finished third-to-last in the majors in OBP and had the sixth-lowest team batting average. So they have to maximize their opportunities. Hence lots of emphasis this spring on "better ownership of the basepaths," the manager said.
This is all basic stuff, but that's the whole point. It's not about asking these players to do things they've never done. It's about doing things they've always done with better attention to detail. And that's one big lesson of 2012 for this team.
"Nobody volunteers to go to the front of the adversity line," said Hurdle. "I should know. I've had my fair share. But the most meaningful lessons you learn in life are from adversity.”
No one pretends that Martin is a modern-day Johnny Bench -- or even a modern-day Tony Pena. But he is the Pirates' most important offseason addition, and not just because he figures to help this team do a better job of slowing the running game.
"Russell," said Burnett, of his old catcher in the Bronx, "is going to have a big impact."
OK, so Martin hit .211/.311/.403 last year with the Yankees. But you know those 21 home runs he launched? No Pirates catcher has ever hit 21 home runs in a season. Not Pena. Not Jason Kendall. Not even Jim Pagliaroni.
But even if that home run total drops, as you would expect because of the move to PNC Park, Martin brings a certain energy and presence to the job that this team -- and, especially, this pitching staff -- greatly needs.
It's just time for us to put it together. That's the thing. It's time for us, as players and as men, to find a way to get it done.
”-- Pirates second baseman Neil Walker
"I just want to bring my experience a little bit," Martin said. "I've had a lot of great players I've been around. I've learned a lot from those players. I've seen the work ethic. I've seen the day-in, day-out grind. I've seen the same approach from some really great players. And over the years, I've caught some great pitchers, and I've acquired, I think, a general knowledge of pitchers. So I really think that's going to be my strength -- being able to work with pitchers.”
Martin blew up his status as one of Canada's favorite sons by skipping the World Baseball Classic to stay in camp and get in sync with a new pitching staff. But his energy and dedication haven't gone unappreciated by a team that will pay him $17 million over the next two seasons.
"We're better behind the plate because of Russell Martin," Hurdle said. "He's veteran leadership that can play. You can go get a lot of veteran guys, but if they're not able to play, that doesn't help you one bit. He can play. He's been in meaningful games. He's played in two major markets. He's got a slow heartbeat. He's got tremendous passion and energy for the game. And he came here to be a difference-maker.”
Without better work from a rotation that finished 11th in the league in both ERA and quality starts last season, this isn't going to be The Year. Period.
So it was ominous that the first reaction of one scout who has covered the Pirates this spring was: "I don't see it. I don't see them getting to .500, especially with Houston leaving the division. I don't see the starting pitching to make that happen."
But let's look at this another way: This rotation can get better. Easily.
For one thing, it will have a full season of Wandy Rodriguez, the Pirates' big trade-deadline acquisition last July. Rodriguez may not be a top-of-the-rotation hammer, but he's a guy with 95 career starts against the other National League Central teams, a guy who has ripped off four straight seasons of double-digit wins and a sub-4.00 ERA for mediocre teams and a fellow who, at the very least, ought to be an upgrade over, say, Erik Bedard.
Then there's James McDonald, a microcosm of this team's whole season last year. He went 9-3, 2.37, before the All-Star break -- and 3-5, 7.52, afterward. If he gives them 30 starts of that first-half James McDonald, they would have an All-Star on their hands.
"In the first half, he was able to keep things simple," Hurdle said. "But then the league punched back, and he might have adjusted too much. You know, sometimes the enemy of 'good' is 'great.' One of the messages I share with young players, that I learned the hard way, is: You want to be great? Just be good for a long time. Try being good today. Then be good tomorrow, then be good for a week, then be good for a year, and OK, you're onto something.”
But this rotation's potential for greatness lies with two of Keith Law's top eight pitching prospects in baseball -- Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. The Pirates need at least one of them to make an impact between now and September.
Taillon, coming off an eye-popping start for Team Canada against the USA last week, has already been sent out and is likely bound for Double-A. But Cole, the first player picked in the country in the 2011 draft, remains in camp. And some scouts think he's already one of this team's five best starters.
He's a long shot to make the club, but at some point, he's positioned to force his way into the big leagues, on the way to True Acehood. Taillon might not be far behind.
"They're every bit as good as what people say they are," said Walker. "I don’t think it's going to be long before those guys are making an impact on our team. And that's something that we've been missing, is those impact players in the minor leagues who come up and really help us."
You start with one of the best players in baseball -- Andrew McCutchen. He finished third in the MVP voting. Had the season been cooperative enough to end in August, he would have won the whole thing. But even he can get better, as his .244/.348/.426 slash line over the last 50 games would attest.
In the big picture, McCutchen says, "I had a real good year, the best year I ever had. But of course, there's still some room for improvement. And that's the good thing about the game. You can always improve in different areas."
But where this team goes from here is mostly about McCutchen's supporting cast. And there is upside in two of his co-stars in particular -- Walker, if he can stay healthy, and gifted left fielder Starling Marte, who begins his first full season in Pittsburgh after spending the last couple of months of last season in the big leagues.
Marte still has a lot of work to do on plate discipline (50 strikeouts and eight walks after his call-up) and handling the breaking ball. But he's a do-it-all, power/speed/leather-working talent with star-power upside.
"He's got the skill set that you need," Hurdle said. "It's about understanding the game now. He's got the foundation, I think, that builds that understanding. Now he needs to just understand what his strengths are and how he can use them with more consistency."
And then there's Walker, one of this clubhouse's most vocal leaders and one of baseball's most underrated second basemen. It's hard not to notice that the Pirates went 62-49 in the first 111 games he played in last year (during which Walker was a .294/.358/.460 hitter).
But it was right about then that a herniated disc in Walker's back began to act up. And it's no coincidence his team went just 15-33 the rest of the way, with Walker missing 30 of those games and hitting only .180/.231/.197 in that stretch.
"It was a helpless feeling, really, when things started to spiral those last five weeks and I wasn't able to help," said Walker, who grew up a Pirates fan and admits to crying the night Sid Bream rumbled home to keep Pittsburgh out of the 1992 World Series. "That was as frustrating as it gets, because you can't really be a leader from the training-room table."
The scars of last year -- and the year before, for that matter -- won't ever fully heal. But this is a team fully aware of where it was last August, what it had a shot to accomplish and what business it left unfinished.
And -- you'll be shocked to learn this -- these guys have heard enough about those 20 straight seasons on the wrong side of Mount .500 to last 162 lifetimes.
"It's an incredible weight," said Burnett. "I can only imagine what these fans are going through. We talk about it all the time. Not just if we'd have gone to the playoffs, but what if we'd finished .500? We'd be freaking legends, just for that. But there's got to be a point made that it goes beyond that. It goes beyond .500, beyond having a winning season. We're all here for October."
"If our goal is to finish over .500, that's not a real good goal," said Walker. "In all actuality, that should have been ended last year. And we know that."
To help them push forward, it's no accident that this team brought in a couple of guys with big personalities who have played in October -- Martin for one, former Tigers and A's super-utility man Brandon Inge for another. Inge, in particular, has preached all spring about the mental side of what he experienced in Oakland last season.
In Oakland last season, "We didn't care about tomorrow, or who we were playing or where we were going," Inge said. "We wanted to beat the team we were playing tonight. Everyone wants to look forward, but that's where you get off track."
And it's where he believes the 2012 Pirates got off track. But when he was asked if he saw a team around him this spring that could live out That Story, Inge replied: "I know from Oakland that any team can be That Story."
Well, in Bradenton this spring, they don't see why That Team can't be them.
"It's just time for us to put it together," Neil Walker said. "That's the thing. It's time for us, as players and as men, to find a way to get it done."