Kovacevic: Hurdle’s the best, Ben’s apology, Oskar’s growth


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Yeah, yeah, so Josh Bell's an MVP candidate, Jordan Lyles is a Cy Young candidate and Felipe Vazquez is an Indomitable Master of All Domains candidate.

But do I hear Clint Hurdle for Manager of the Year?

The counterintuitive data behind the Pirates' 24-20 start is almost beyond belief: How they've had 20 players spend time on the injury list. How three of those have been starting pitchers, including now their two best in Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams. How they've given up 39 more runs than they've scored, the fifth-worst differential in Major League Baseball. How they've hit 42 home runs, third-fewest in the majors. How they've booted the ball all over the field for a .979 fielding percentage that's fifth-lowest in the majors.

And yet, they've kept winning.

More to the point, they've kept their chins up. After losing eight in a row in April, they're 12-6. After opening their already ominous 11-game road trip with a 17-4 embarrassment a dozen days ago in St. Louis, they went on to a 7-4 trip against three opponents with winning records.  Within that trip, they were outscored, 41-11, in the four losses ... and just kept bouncing back.

I've spent a lot of time in that clubhouse, including the first third of that trip. I'm here to tell you that, while the players deserve their due -- and, as Francisco Cervelli told me, "We've got guys in here with heart, guys who care" -- this originates, then emanates from Hurdle.

Bark up a storm when he bungles a bullpen choice. Blame him, fairly or unfairly, when there's a baserunning blunder. But bear in mind, as anyone in the professional sports business will attest, that the greatest challenge any coach or manager faces in leading a group of athletes is exactly that: He or she has to do the leading.

Hurdle is a deeply spiritual man who connects with those around him in a way unlike anyone I've known. That ranges from his most important players to his least, as recently demonstrated by his tales of extra time spent in Bradenton "just talking in the outfield" with 32nd-round draft pick Montana DuRapau, who stunningly is now on the roster here.  But it extends to those far below that level, to team staff and employees, to the lowest of all -- us reporter types -- and at the same time all the way up to the people owning and running the franchise. It extends, too, to the outside and the countless times he's encountered an angry fan in line at Giant Eagle, then taken a deep breath and explained his lineup from the previous night. (He tells those stories a ton, and I've had at least a couple corroborated by readers.)

That matters. Still.

After all the analysis is done, all the metrics amassed and absorbed, someone's still got to stand at the base of those dugout steps and oversee it all.

Maybe this season won't keep going as it has. Maybe the Pirates' game tonight at PNC Park will mark the beginning of another long, miserable losing streak.

But maybe it won't and this summer will still somehow matter. And that's amazing.

Don't forget why.

• This is nuts, but Lyles has the fifth-best ERA among all starters in the majors and couldn't reasonably be considered any better than the Pirates' third-best performer to date. No way he rates with Bell or Vazquez. And that's anything but a knock.

• Three All-Stars?

Again, long way to go. But none of the three could be omitted if the selections were made now.

• Please, please, please stop with the Bell as Willie Stargell stuff. It's not fair at all to the young man coming from anyone, and it's positively offensive coming from team employees, as is happening now. Bell's been doing this for two months. Willie did it for 21 years. And the first time Bell slides back a bit, all anyone will do is wag the Willie thing back in his face.

• Won't last. Can't last. Meaning the team. Not because of the run differential to date but because of the health of the rotation.

I'm a big believer in run differential as a predictor of success/failure, but I'm also aware run differential can experience its own course corrections. Injuries must be weighed into such math, and players are getting healthier, stronger. And beyond that, this team was bound to hit better than it has, and that's beginning.

But sorry, there's nowhere to hide from not having Taillon for two months and now missing Williams for a while, not to mention Chris Archer still trying to claw back. The DuRapau opener stunt was cute, but that was the act of a desperate team, painfully aware that starting Nick Kingham, Steven Brault or Clay Holmes is tantamount to forfeit.

All the mojo in the world can't replace taking the ball every fifth day.

Ben Roethlisberger's so predictable. I could have penned the full script for his responses to that interview with KDKA-TV's Bob Pompeani, complete with the contrived apology to Antonio Brown and the all-time king of eyeball-roller, "AB made me who I am."

Oh. Please.

This is where Ben goes in such situations. It's his default mode. Anytime he's dead-certain that he's not in the wrong, he'll heap blame upon himself, and he'll do so dramatically. If he plays a game in which he's 24 for 25 for 500 yards but the Steelers still lose, he'll stand before us and say, "Yeah, but I should have made one more completion. It's my fault." But if he legitimately is the culprit, he'll be far more defensive.

In this case, he wants everyone to say he took the high road. Which he did. And that's fine.

• To further clarify: Ben has zero reason to apologize to AB. He also did infinitely more to make AB than vice versa. My primary point above is to not take his remarks at full face value. He wants to get past it the best way he can, and this has always been his course.

• On that same note, AB's so predictable. And so petty:

Imagine being someone of his stature, then pouncing on the first Ben quotes he'd seen in months and spontaneously reacting like an angry schoolchild.

• Terrell Edmunds had better explain why he went onto Twitter to tap the 'like' button on AB's tweet:

Not to any of us but to his teammates, who are trying like crazy to quell any such nonsense. I've never known Edmunds to be any kind of problem, but it's unmistakable between that like and his later "not an apology" thread trying to explain it -- since deleted -- that he's got to prioritize the team over his personal friendships.

• Want to know what leadership looks like?

Check out Cam Heyward's response to my tweet on the topic yesterday:

I respect the man. I'll hear him out. But I'll also bet Heyward and others on that defense already have gotten hold of Edmunds, judging by that tweet deletion.

• This isn't drama. This is how to deal with drama. There's a difference.

• On to actual football, my friends. OTAs open this morning. Can't wait to catch Ben's first hookup with Diontae Johnson. That more than anything.

• Still can't believe this ...

The Blues, already the best story in professional sports for 2019, blew the Sharks right off the ice in Game 5. Dominated every millimeter of the rink.

Are we done doubting these guys yet?

• Any player still participating in the Stanley Cup playoffs tends to look better than any player who isn't. For example, when we watched Ian Cole still skating for the Avalanche and faring well, he'd get compared favorably to almost anyone on the Penguins' blue line, mostly because ... you know, he was still participating.

I sense some of that going on now with the Blues, primarily with Oskar Sundqvist. Only that feels fair ... to a degree.

Sundqvist never needed to be sent out for Ryan Reaves, especially since Mike Sullivan would make clear almost immediately he had little use for the latter. That's the low-hanging fruit here and, again, it's fair. A bad trade is a bad trade, and that'll wind up one of Jim Rutherford's worst.

But history shouldn't be rewritten that Sundqvist wasn't given a chance while in Pittsburgh, as if somehow Sullivan was culpable. It isn't true. Sundqvist logged 18 games as a 21-year-old rookie in 2015-16, then 10 more the following season, and both of those teams, of course, wound up winning the Cup. It wasn't exactly an easy roster to crack at center, you'll recall, with Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen.

More to the point, Sundqvist's currently listed on the St. Louis roster as 6 feet 3, 206 pounds. Assuming that's true, Oskar's bulked up big-time with the Blues. Because I spent a lot of time around that kid when he was here, and I'll swear he couldn't have weighed an ounce over 165 pounds. He was a rail. He was the edge of a rail.

He grew up. He grew bigger. He's going great. Good for him and better for the Blues.

• Man, it'd be cool to see those guys win. After spending a few days in St. Louis just now for baseball, I felt firsthand the passion that city's always had for the Blues, through good times and bad. It's completely nuts, for how generally competitive they've been, that they've never won a Cup, and it's nuttier still they haven't even been to a Final in 49 years.

Those fans deserve it.

• The Sharks might not win the Cup, as I'd been predicting, but they'll make quite the impact on the sport this spring. Because a lot of those big calls that have gone their way will lead to even bigger changes in how the NHL administers the review system. They have to.

It's one thing for officials to misfire on a judgment call, a collision, a high stick, that sort of thing. It's another thing for all four men in stripes to miss a blatant, black-and-white hand pass leading directly to an overtime goal, then watching all concerned shrug that there's nothing they can do about it. Complete clown show.

• Horse racing's been hit with even harder criticisms in this Triple Crown season, with the Kentucky Derby fiasco front and center. But reserve a special spot in the heart for the riderless horse that competed all the way to the Preakness finish over the weekend:

Truly my spirit animal. Thanks for reading.

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