The black-and-gold shirts emblazoned with the words “finish” can be found inside just about every locker, a fabric reminder of what it will take for the franchise to break out of a nearly 20-year funk.
The Pirates were on the cusp of contention last year but a 53-47 start ended with a 19-43 finish to send the club to its 19th consecutive losing season.
It was a painful way to end a promising season.
Yet the ever optimistic Hurdle decided to turn a sore subject into a teaching point for one of baseball’s youngest teams. Sprinkling the roster with a handful of veterans didn’t hurt either.
“It’s a good place to start,” said outfielder Nate McLouth, who returned to Pittsburgh after spending three-plus seasons in Atlanta. “I think these guys know what’s ahead of them.”
So do the guys the Pirates acquired in the off-season. Injured right-hander A.J. Burnett has won two World Series. Catcher Rod Barajas, infielder Casey McGehee and shortstop Clint Barmes all have postseason experience.
The Pirates took an emphatic step forward last summer, moving into first place in late July before a series of injuries – then injuries to the call-ups – and the mental grind of playing meaningful games caught up to them.
“It wasn’t the way we wanted it to go at the end, but we have spent the off-season thinking about what happened and it’s going to fuel us,” Andrew McCutchen said. “We’re going to be a better team because of it.”
It’s the next phase for a franchise eager to show a loyal but skeptical fan base last year’s success was not a mirage.
“I’m encouraged by the work we’ve done,” Hurdle said.
So is team president Frank Coonelly. While allowing the Pirates still “aren’t the prettiest girl at the dance” he pointed to the team’s aggression in pursuing Erik Bedard and trading for Burnett – who waived a no-trade clause to get shipped to Pittsburgh – as proof the team’s image is changing.
Hurdle is quick to point to the rash of injuries that hit in early August as one cause for the slide last season. Forced to go to second-tier players to plug holes, the Pirates struggled to stay in games.
He’s hopeful that won’t be an issue in 2012. He pointed to the strong springs of McLouth, first baseman Matt Hague and third baseman Josh Harrison as proof. The trio led the team in batting in Bradenton. All three started the season on the bench.
“We are deeper,” Hurdle said.