Kovacevic: These Pirates compute with a chip and a bite


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Francisco Cervelli is greeted at the dugout following his monster two-run home run Monday night at Minute Maid Park. - AP

HOUSTON -- "Oh, you felt that already, huh?"

Jameson Taillon's smile was as wide as his wingspan as he pumped his right fist into his glove. This was Monday afternoon at Minute Maid Park, a few hours before the Pirates' penultimate spring exhibition, a 12-9 loss to the Astros.

And yeah, I felt it. It was my first day around the group since pitchers and catchers reported to Bradenton. This was definitely different.

They're ... angry, for lack of a better word.

"Every man in here has something to prove," Keone Kela was telling me as part of an exceptional first really good talk we'd had since his arrival from the Rangers last summer. "That's the thing I think has us banded together. Every man in here, even our guys who've been around, we're all ready to show people what we are, what we've got."

His eyes flared, but the tone was unmistakably upbeat. It was striking, and I'm afraid I won't do it justice.

There was so much more of it, too.

"Look at our team," Starling Marte told me. "We can pitch. Everybody knows that. But we can hit, too. You'll see. And we're going to come together. I think we did already in the spring."

How exactly?

"Because everybody is kind of the same. We're hungry. We want to show everybody."

"Nobody in here's a finished product," was how Corey Dickerson worded it from the next stall. "Nobody's complete. Nobody's satisfied.  I know I'm not. I think that's a big driver for all of us."

Kyle Crick, too:

If that comes across as standard spring claptrap, so be it. I've been covering this team since 2005, and it's the first I've sensed this specific sentiment. There's invariably optimism, hope, all that warm and fuzzy. But not this. The chip, the bite was all over. Some of it, as a few players mentioned, was individual. But some of it was collective, as well, after hearing or reading forecasts of doom within the context of what most experts view as a loaded National League Central. There was lots of the latter, actually.

They think they're good. Let's put it that way. And they think, primarily because of their pitching, that they can be really good.

Anytime a sentiment's shared at this scale, I strongly suspect a coach or manager is involved. So I took the question to the dugout: What's making these guys tick?

"Every season has that mystery," came the reply from Clint Hurdle, after one of his characteristic thoughtful pauses. "You don't know what's going to happen, do you?"

I responded that, in fact, I don't.

"Neither do we. So that's where we are: We're just looking forward to the ride. Your best plan for your future is to create it. It should be a lot of fun."

Big smile from him, too.

Whatever they're up to, it starts Thursday in Cincinnati.

• Kela initiated our talk, by the way. He'll be fine in that regard.

• I can envision some reading the above and imagining it has something to do with Bob Nutting and all the criticism the ownership and front office get -- and deserve -- but it just doesn't. It's the furthest thing from a topic in this clubhouse, and that's been the case for years. Not because it's forbidden or anything silly like that. But because baseball is baseball. The team is the team. They're in their own world.

• Hurdle's lineup for this game simply had to be a giveaway of what he'll send out against the Reds:

1. Adam Frazier, 2B
2. Starling Marte, CF
3. Corey Dickerson, LF
4. Josh Bell, 1B
5. Francisco Cervelli, C
6. Jung Ho Kang, 3B
7. Lonnie Chisenhall, RF
8. Melky Cabrera, DH
9. Erik Gonzalez, SS

Obviously, there'll be no DH, but slide Gonzalez up a spot, and that's it.

From there, factor in Gregory Polanco, who should definitely be back by May at the latest, and it's ... I'm not sure. All I know about this lineup for the moment is that the cleanup guy had better come through. But he'll be tomorrow's column.

• That lineup looked pretty good on this night, albeit against Forrest Whitley, Houston's 21-year-old first-round pick from 2016. Frazier lasered a single to right with the game's leadoff at-bat, followed by Marte launching a double to deep right-center. Two batters later, Cervelli annihilated a two-run home run to left, up near the train tracks, to make it 3-0.

• Felipe Vazquez's 1-2-3 second was so filthy... eh, it's a family website. Use the imagination.

• Kela endured a mix of bad luck and worse command in the Astros' seven-run third. The inning opened with a bouncing ball that would have been right at a second baseman if not for a dramatic shift, but he then issued three walks. Hurdle yanked him, and non-roster guy Geoff Hartlieb gave up the touchdown from there. Four of the runs were charged to Kela.

• Don't expect the 25-man roster to be finalized until Wednesday. That's been Neal Huntington's MO in recent seasons, to wait until the day before the opener. Also, don't expect any surprises: Jordan Lyles will be the fifth starter. Nick Kingham, out of options, will stay in the pen. Steven Brault, who has an option, will go down. Kevin Newman will probably stay as a utility infielder.

• Chisenhall was hit on the right hand by a pitch in the sixth inning and removed almost immediately after the hand was checked. If the injury's even remotely significant, Cabrera will be the opening-day right fielder. Probably should be, anyway. He's on an 8-for-26 roll emerging from the spring, including another hit here.

• Also, with Jose Osuna being held back in Bradenton yesterday because of lower neck pain -- he'll fly straight to Pittsburgh at some point this week for further evaluation -- he's a lock to open the season on the injury list, along with Gregory Polanco, Chad Kuhl and possibly Chisenhall and Dovydas Neverauskas.

That'll be your 2019 Pirates, at least for the opener.

• Because this game wasn't televised, I'll spare Marte the embarrassment of sharing here that, in the first inning, he ran through a hold sign and nearly got Frazier thrown out at the plate, then, later in the inning, ran into an out at home with the infield drawn in.

• The greatest regret among a lot of people in this camp -- though not spoken out loud -- is that Ke'Bryan Hayes won't be on the team. Man, he's won hearts and minds here. They love him.

That's understandable after a .355/.364/.839 Grapefruit League line -- 11 for 35, by the way, with three home runs and 12 RBIs -- and hasn't played above Class AA. No harm in first facing Class AAA pitching in Indianapolis, as that level's often the one that trips up youngsters since there are far more experienced arms there.

• Oh, and this on Hayes: No matter what any rankings show anywhere, trust me, the Pirates now consider this kid, not Mitch Keller, their No. 1 prospect. And good for him. Spring matters for prospects.

• Wait, just one more on Hayes, I swear: One of the team's evaluators shared this terrific tale with me regarding Hayes' three-run home run Saturday in Fort Myers, Fla., a 12-3 split-squad loss to the Red Sox ...

Boston right-hander Heath Hembree came hard at Hayes, presumably to see what the kid had. And when Hembree got Hayes to "swing out of his shoes," per the evaluator, on 3-1 high heat, it appeared he'd found the hole. So when Hembree went right back to the high heat -- same location, same velocity -- boom ... straightaway center. "No wind helped that ball," the evaluator said. "He crushed it. I'm not sure if he shortened up or what, but you just don't see a player that young make an adjustment like that."

• As an aside, it's wonderful to see how Houston's been rewarded for being such a good baseball city for such a long time. The commemorations of the 2017 World Series championship are all over town, particularly around the ballpark, and they're all as classy as the Astros themselves have been.

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