Kovacevic: Don’t dare call Pirates quitters ☕


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The Cardinals' Tyler O'Neill barely beats a throw to Josh Bell, Tuesday night in St. Louis. - AP

ST. LOUIS -- These Pirates have looked lousy since the All-Star break. They’ve even looked lethargic, for the first time all summer.

They haven’t quit.

Not individually. Not collectively.

It was one outcome out of 162, the 3-1 ninth-inning capper over the Cardinals on this Tuesday night at Busch Stadium, and it's seldom worth magnifying any game beyond the math. The cold fact is, a loss in the Wednesday matinee series finale, and all concerned will fly back to Pittsburgh with a 1-5 trip, and faces as long as their odds against real contention in the Central.

As Clint Hurdle flatly summarized, "It was a good game for our team. We'd just lost four in a row, and we stayed the course."

And yet, it was more.

Hurdle's first four starters out of the All-Star break had been beaten, the final three very badly. So when Dario Agrazal took the ball for his fourth start in a Major League Baseball career that had been so wholly unanticipated that the Pirates had cut him from their 40-man roster in January, he undoubtedly did so with the awareness that, if he'd have flopped, they'd all have flopped the first time through the rotation.

He didn't. This poised-way-beyond-his-24-years rookie came through with a line of six-plus innings, one run and five hits. It wasn't all smooth. He struck out nobody, he walked three, he escaped the bases loaded in the second, he couldn't control the running game, and he was pulled with men at the corners and no outs in the seventh.

But it got done.

And, per what's already seen as customary within the clubhouse, he kept the same expression throughout.

I had to ask: Where'd that originate?

"The only thing I can think of is that I've matured a lot," he replied through interpreter Mike Gonzalez. "Every time I take the mound, I just think that it's another game. I've learned how to control my mind. I feel like, right now, no matter what the situation might be, going out there with that mentality, that I'm just going to be myself ... that's allowed me to remain humble."

So will the travails on this night, for sure. Because once Hurdle took the ball and passed it on to Richard Rodriguez for the seventh -- again, runners at the corners, nobody out -- any warm and fuzzy looked like it was about to be blown to bits.

As Agrazal would tell me with a slight smile, "I was pulling for Richard very hard."

Yeah, well, that's not really necessary these days. Rodriguez made his 19th consecutive scoreless appearance his most climactic, getting Matt Wieters to bounce into a forceout, Harrison Bader to pop up and Jose Martinez to roll to second:

"I was so happy," Agrazal recalled.

For Rodriguez, who also was once cut from a 40-man by the Orioles in 2017, then demoted by the Pirates to Class AAA Indianapolis two months ago after huge early struggles, it was continuing vindication.

Not of himself, but of Hurdle.

"“Honestly, I regained my confidence because of him,” Rodriguez would say, retelling the tale he shared with me earlier in the month about Hurdle's relentless faith, as well as that of his teammates. “I believe that I'm Richard Rodriguez again because of him.”

Those two pitchers clearly aren't quitting. Not in life. Not on the season.

And even though Hurdle himself had expressed slight concern here Monday afternoon over his team's general energy level, even though there's been some oddly erratic outfield play from Corey Dickerson, even though there'd been some dubious baserunning, I hadn't detected a trace of actual quit from any quarter. Players were visibly agitated. They were fidgeting from station to station in pregame prep. And, as became clear Tuesday, when one of their own was exposed for a lack of effort, even though Marte's one of their fixtures, he apparently got quite the earful from Hurdle and teammates alike.

That's not a group in quit mode. And knowing these players, this manager and his staff, that's not in the offing. They might not achieve what they want, but it won't be because they didn't leave it all out there.

Dickerson, working through whatever's afflicting him defensively, doubled and scored on Kevin Newman's single in the fifth.

Francisco Liriano, rebounding from a challenging month and change, put together a 1-2-3 eighth for his third consecutive scoreless appearance.

Josh Bell, now just 3 for 19 out of the break, singled authoritatively in the ninth to send Starling Marte, who'd been plunked after one out, to third base. That set the stage for the decisive rally.

"Finally," Bell would tell me of the single. "I knew when I flied out the at-bat before I'd be fine. Stayed inside the ball."

Just like he did on that single, ripping it the other way.

Never doubt his drive.

The offense as a unit snapped a 19-inning drought with that run in the fifth, and the clawing felt necessary to the end.

Colin Moran contributed this infield single that Kolten Wong could have handled better ...

... but the primary objective in that situation is to put the ball in play, and that contact plus that extraordinary headfirst slide were plenty for Marte to plate the winner.

Mega-gutsy call on our live feed, by the way:

It wasn't exactly a smash off the wall, but it seemed to be appreciated all the more for that reason alone. Hurdle singled out Moran for "a big moment for us." And when Moran was done with media interviews afterward, Jeff Banister, the venerable special assistant working with the team on this trip, pulled him aside for a personal set of accolades, the kind only a baseball lifer can offer. Even through that red beard that had been showered off from that slide, it was easy to see Moran turning that much redder.

Newman then nearly hit into a 6-4-3, but Paul Goldschmidt couldn't pick the relay from the dirt at first. Another run was across, and Newman, too, had busted it down all 90 feet of chalk. That made it 3-1.

Felipe Vazquez came on for his first save situation with so much apparent fire that one of his fastballs flamed up at 101 mph, which is about as much adversity as he can encounter anymore.

What was that?

"I do that maybe two times all year," Vazquez told me, grinning. "It doesn't affect me."

It does to pitchers of far lesser poise, but he'd still put forth the requisite 1-2-3 inning with two punchouts.

None of us can know where this team's headed or what they'd have to do to prompt this passive-by-default front office from adding, never mind avoiding selling valuable assets like the guy I just mentioned. But it couldn't be clearer, now that this four-day flail's done, that they'll do so with chins up and eyes wide.

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