The Pittsburgh Pirates won 98 games last year but lost a one-game playoff to the Chicago Cubs. That is the curse of playing in the same division as the St. Louis Cardinals, who won 100 games last season.
In fact, the Pirates fell to the Cardinals in the 2013 NLDS and finished two games behind them in both 2014 and 2015. Their reward? Wild Card losses to Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta.
Clint Hurdle, however, has a straightforward plan for getting over the hump.
“You just got to play better,” the Pirates manager said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “You want more, you got to do more. Three years in a row, I think we’ve finished two (or three) games behind the Cardinals. They’ve set the bar very high. They’re a great organization, they’re a very good team, they play well together, they represent the game well. We do the same. So you find little ways to improve your ball club, and it usually starts with each individual improving themselves a little bit. Coach Wooden said it best many, many years ago: If you want to improve your team, improve yourself. If each man in that locker room gets a little better, it’s going to make the team better.”
Hurdle, to be clear, isn’t disheartened by the last three seasons. If anything, he’s encouraged by them.
“In the Wild Card, to lose the way we have, I think, No. 1, it takes an uncommon team to get there three years in a row in the playoffs,” Hurdle said. “Only three teams in baseball have done it in the past three years. I do think we live in a society that, when you don’t get the actual result you want, more often than not you want to blow everything up. We don’t need to blow everything up. We have a lot of good values in place, a lot of good foundational principles, a lot of good personnel in place. We need to tweak some things to continue improving and get better. We believe we’re in the process of doing that right now. It keeps you hungry.”
While the Cardinals and Cubs will again be in the playoff mix, Hurdle believes the Pirates have what it takes to win the NL Central – and it all starts with their pitching staff.
“Well, every year, the expectations are for the starters to give us the innings we need so we can use the bullpen when we want to, not when we have to,” Hurdle said. “That’s a whole different dynamic. When your starters aren’t getting into games on the back side – through five, into six, into seven – you’re going tax your bullpen. We were fortunate last year. We had a nice combination of both. Starters gave us quality innings, and our bullpen pitched outstanding innings.”
The Pirates hope for another stellar season from Gerrit Cole, who went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA and 202 strikeouts last season, as well as Francisco Liriano, who went 12-7 with a 3.38 ERA and 205 strikeouts.
“Cole is growing into an ace,” Hurdle said. “Liriano has been remarkable in what he’s been able to accomplish in the second half of his career. We believe we’ve added a very valuable addition in Jon Niese, a ground-ball pitcher, a left-hand pitcher who’s shown to have success in our ballpark. We also like the addition of (Ryan) Vogelsong, an experienced veteran with a slow heartbeat that’s down some very special things in the game pitching in the postseason. Jeff Locke’s kind of revamped, re-tweaked his delivery. He’s a guy that knows what time it is: It’s time for him to do something with some consistency. He’s had halves of seasons, which have been very, very good and other halves have been challenging. So we like the five that are in place.”