Kovacevic: Rising above all this wreckage takes a special spirit


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Melky Cabrera picks up Starling Marte in the celebration Sunday at PNC Park. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

"We've got to fight for the guys who are hurt. That's what everybody's saying in here right now. Play for the guy who can't play. Pick him up."

Felipe Vazquez told me that.

Nearly four hours after the Pirates and Athletics had taken the field at PNC Park, nearly 400 pitches after the first had been thrown, Starling Marte's three-run launch into the visitors' bullpen in the 13th inning brought a 5-3 victory that felt every bit as vital as it was fun.

The fun was evident to everyone among the couple thousand hardy souls who stuck it out and to our Matt Sunday at field level ...

[caption id="attachment_820000" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Starling Marte's home run. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

... but the vitality, the urgency, that's what Vazquez was talking about. And he apparently wasn't alone, from what I'd gathered. Beginning at the top of the clubhouse structure with Clint Hurdle, down through the coaches and to the team's internal leadership, the same message is being repeated: Identify a player, potentially a friend, who's hurt. Play for that player.

I brought this up with Adam Frazier, as well:

The list of candidates is unfortunately, unimaginably long. Nine players are currently on Major League Baseball's Injured List. Seventeen in all have spent time there. That includes the entire everyday outfield of Corey Dickerson, Gregory Polanco and Marte, a major injury to Erik Gonzalez at shortstop, rotating injuries to all three catchers and now two-fifths of the rotation in Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer, plus back-end reliever Keone Kela.

And yet, after taking these two of three from Oakland, the Pirates somehow have their heads above water at 16-15, three games behind the first-place Cubs.

I loved how Neal Huntington worded it before the game, and it's worth reading every syllable of this: "Look at what this club's gone through. We haven't had an at-bat from our regular left fielder. Our right fielder missed a month. The guy we signed to take our right fielder's place hasn't played. Our starting shortstop has a broken collarbone. We've had at least one catcher on the IL all year long. We've got two regulars hitting under .175. We've got three relievers we were really counting on with ERAs over 5.00. We've blown a bunch of late leads. We lost eight in a row. That's a recipe for a 10-20 team ... And we're sitting here at .500. We've already faced a ton of adversity, but this club continues to fight."

I don't see eye-to-eye with the man on much, but I'll be damned if he isn't dead-on about that.

Here's Hurdle on the same, also worth all the syllables: "We don't feel sorry for ourselves. There's not a person in there who does. The league doesn't care. The game doesn't care. One of the best quotes I ever heard from anybody was from Lou Holtz, who said, 'Ninety percent of the people don't care, and the other 10 percent are glad it happened.' It's true! You play, man! They can beat people, and they know they can beat people. Our guys have been very gritty."

After a breath, he added, "We're a game over .500. With everything we've traveled through in these 31 games."

We'll see what, if anything, it means.

Tuesday and Wednesday, the ravaged rotation will be reduced to sending out Steven Brault and Nick Kingham -- neither of them effective in relief, neither of them sufficiently stretched -- to face the Rangers. After that, it's four games in St. Louis, followed by seven more games in Phoenix and San Diego.

Maybe this was nothing more than a delaying of the disaster.

But it's probably worth appreciating that they've avoided being dead and buried already, allowing for the possibility that enough players -- Taillon and Archer, in particular -- can return in time to restore some equilibrium. Because with the rotation intact, as we've seen, it's a pretty competitive team overall.

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