Deep impact: Bucs viable contender with robust lineup
Pirates' balance, depth translating into wins despite McCutchen's slow start
PITTSBURGH -- There was something novel about that Pirates rally for their latest win, which could not have happened in the recent past. Not because it happened in Milwaukee, where the Bucs feel about as comfortable as flies in a spider web.
But because it came in two waves: After Starling Marte tied the game with a two-run homer, Pittsburgh started over and took the lead with some smaller ball; on last season's thunder road, the Pirates would have nothing left after emptying the big guns.
And because before it ended, a total of five hits had produced the Bucs' fifth win of this young season when trailing after seven innings, something they did only three times all last year. The last couple of seasons, their lineup wasn't built for such sustained rallies.
And also because Andrew McCutchen had nothing to do with it.
Connect all those dots, and you begin to understand why this Pittsburgh team's hopes for season-long contention are legitimate, not folly. Last year, "deep" described the Pirates' drives, as they mashed 170 homers, the second-best total in franchise history.
Now, "deep" describes their lineup.
Nothing makes that point more lucidly than the fact they are 16-12 and McCutchen is batting .238. And that average was .217 before his 4-for-5 breakout Tuesday -- while the Pirates were already hot.
"Obviously, they can pick me up -- because I haven't done anything," McCutchen said. "It takes more than one person to win games, and if I'm not hitting, there's a lot of guys who can get on base, create havoc and score a lot of runs."
The long-term takeaway from this trend can be dramatic: McCutchen's slides at the tail ends of the last two seasons -- he hit .194 in August-September those years, after tearing up the National League for four months -- are generally attributed to his desire to carry more of the load as the team was fading out of division races; he shouldn't feel that burden this time around.
"That's important for the team to know," manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's important that Andrew knows it."
The '13 Bucs may not yet be the new Lumber Company. But they definitely no longer are the Slumber Company.
The maturation of the lineup has been a three-step program: Marte joined Neil Walker, Garrett Jones, Pedro Alvarez and McCutchen in the core group; veterans Russell Martin, Brandon Inge and John McDonald were imported for their specialized skills and influence; and Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider have begun to confirm general manager Neal Huntington's vision when he acquired them last summer.
"I like the balance and length of the lineup," Hurdle said. "More experience for the core guys. The addition of Marte at the top and Martin at the bottom. Then look at the middle. It's so much better. It's the evolution of the club, and I've seen it with other teams."
The holes in the 2012 lineup prevented many chain-gang rallies. In the first month of this season, Pittsburgh has already scored four-plus runs in an inning seven times in 28 games; it did that once in last season's opening 28 games.
"We came out of the chute a week into the season this time. Last year, we took two months to get there," Hurdle reminded.
How true, in case you forgot: The '12 Pirates had batted .218 as a team and averaged 2.9 runs a game through May.
"It's been good to get off to a good start," said Jones, whose 15 RBIs are one behind team co-leaders McCutchen and Sanchez. "Because in the past, our offense has taken a while to get going, so hopefully this is a sign that we can keep everyone just feeling good."
The Bucs, as everyone else of course, have been swinging it in cool, damp April weather. So just wait until the prototypical hitters' heat registers on the thermometer.
"Top to bottom, this lineup has a chance to connect very well," Hurdle said. "Our lineup is stretched out and goes deeper than at any time since I've been here. When your sixth and seventh hitters are Alvarez and Martin ... that's not bad."
Martin has taken recent turns in the two-hole, while regular No. 2 hitter Walker recovers from a hand injury, but the veteran catcher normally bats seventh. His and Marte's production atop the lineup have had the biggest impact; they've extended the chain. They've made affordable keeping Clint Barmes' glove in play, as the defensively steady shortstop is the one guy not in the new lineup for his bat.
Marte's remarkable leadoff antics -- he has begun 18 of 27 games by reaching base -- have made people forget how anxious the Pirates were about the top of their order. The numerous candidates tried in that spot last season had a cumulative on-base percentage of .291.
Martin's presence has been no less dramatic in that seven-spot, which, with catching predecessor Rod Barajas as the main occupant, produced a .230 average in 2012.
"And everybody hasn't even clicked yet. When they get going, there's no telling what can happen," said McCutchen, who counts himself among the not-yet-going.
When he does, smack in the middle of it, the courting of a division title will really come to (batting) order.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.