DENVER—Neil Walker knows the growing pains of these Pirates well.
A native of the Pittsburgh area and the Pirates’ first-round pick in 2004, Walker lived them—as a fan, as a prospect, and as a participant. It makes him appreciate where the Pirates are today: a season removed from ending a two-decade drought with their first winning season and postseason appearance since 1992, back when Walker turned 7.
He feels that’s a foundation to build on. The doubts of failures past have given way to the confidence of a job well done.
Just like the 20 years of losing allowed uncertainty to surface when things got tough —playing a part in the second-half fades of 2011 and ’12—Walker says last year’s resurgence is a big part of why this season, after stumbling early, the Pirates are right in the middle of the National League playoff race.
“A couple of us were here in 2009,” Walker said, referring to himself, Andrew McCutchen and Charlie Morton. “We’ve gone through the 100-loss seasons. We know that ‘oh no, here we go again,’ feeling. We’ve had that feeling of a three-run lead in the late innings and feeling it might not be enough.”
Not anymore. Not after last year, when the Pirates never found themselves more than four games out of first place in the NL Central, spent 56 days on top of the division and knocked off the Reds in the wild-card showdown before taking the eventual NL champion Cardinals to five games in the NL Division Series.
“Last year, we learned (how) to win,” Walker said. “We’ve had a one-run lead in the sixth and known we were going to win. We learned how the baseball season works in cycles—and you ride out the bad times, turn the page and get things going again. We know we are a talented group, and know we can beat the best teams in our league.”
And it shows.
Things didn’t go well for the Pirates early this season. By May 6, they were already 91/2 games out of first place in the NL Central. They were still eight games below .500 on May 20, and trailed the division-leading Brewers by nine games as late as June 28.
Four weeks later, the Pirates were in second place in the NL Central, three games behind the Brewers. They were 13-8 over that stretch, the second-best record in the NL to the Nationals (13-6), and the only team in the NL Central with a winning mark.
They didn’t panic.
“They have become very good at self-evaluation,” manager Clint Hurdle said of the Pirates’ players. “They didn’t wonder, ‘What do we need to do?’ Their answer wasn’t, ‘We need new guys.’ Their answer was, ‘We need to play better.’ ”
It is about looking for solutions, which the Pirates did last year—not looking for excuses, which is what is so easily done at times like during that 20-year frustration.
“Guys got to the point where they took it personal,” Hurdle said. “They knew it was time to get things straightened out and they did. We still have a long ways to go.”
The Pirates have already come so far. This is a team that didn’t merely endure 20 consecutive losing seasons. It’s a team that finished in last place in nine of the first 18 years of that stretch and lost 105 games in 2010.
It’s a team that was leading the NL Central on July 31, 2011, and then lost 43 of its final 62 games to finish 24 games out of first.
It’s a team that was only three games out of first place on Aug. 2, 2012, but lost 38 of its final 55 games and finished 18 games back.
Most of all, said Walker, it is a team.
“We don’t have huge-name guys in our lineup,” Walker said, “but watch our lineup as the game develops and the at-bats guys like Russell Martin and Ike Davis have. They see a ton of pitches. Even if we don’t do damage, we make their starting pitcher work and get closer to being out of the game, which will give us an opportunity.”
And that is a difference.
“We expect to win now. That’s important,” Walker said. “Nobody has to fully carry the burden. Andrew is the best player in the league, in my opinion, but you never see him prancing.”