PITTSBURGH — Where most saw misery and chaos, Clint Hurdle saw something else entirely.
The day Hurdle took over as the Pittsburgh Pirates manager in December 2010, he spoke about electrifying the city. He preached optimism then went out and practiced it every day while talking about a vision that went far beyond returning a moribund franchise to respectability.
It’s why Hurdle isn’t satisfied after leading Pittsburgh to a 94-68 record and its first playoff berth in 21 years. It’s why he doesn’t view tonight’s wild-card game against Cincinnati as the culmination of three years of patience, progress and pragmatism.
Press Hurdle on how detailed he allowed his vision to get and he leans forward for emphasis.
“To win a sixth World Series,” he said.
But first things first.
The team that spent all summer defying expectations now must find a way to do it again when it hosts the first playoff game in Pittsburgh in 7,660 days. Coming off a weekend sweep in Cincinnati that gave the Pirates home-field advantage for the one-and-done wild card, Pittsburgh has to press reset while trying not to get caught up in the kind of hype not seen in the city since Barry Bonds bolted for San Francisco 21 years ago.
“What happened over the weekend doesn’t matter,” Hurdle said.
Neither does the six months that came before it, although Hurdle believes his team has all the hallmarks required to make sure this postseason appearance will extend beyond a cameo.
“I like the grit factor,” he said, “and the lessons we’ve learned.”
Those lessons have been learned by a roster that is baseball’s version of Ellis Island, a mixture of veterans looking to revive their careers and an exciting young core that includes MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and ace-in-training Gerrit Cole.
Perhaps it’s fitting that left-hander Francisco Liriano (16-8, 3.02 ERA) will start the team’s most important game in a generation. Liriano was allowed to leave via free agency after an underwhelming stint with the Chicago White Sox in 2012, and the Pirates signed him to a two-year deal last winter that turned out to be one of the best bargains in baseball.
Fueled by a slightly overhauled delivery and a devastating slider, Liriano rediscovered the form that made him an All-Star in 2006. Even more, he’s found a home in a clubhouse that wasn’t always the most welcoming in the majors.
“In the beginning, when people came here, it was more of a rehabilitation center,” McCutchen said. “I mean it’s true. Guys came here toward the end of their career, saying this is going to boost them up, maybe they can have a big year so they can go somewhere else.”
Not so much anymore.
The arrival of pitcher A.J. Burnett in 2012 and catcher Russell Martin last winter signaled a sea change. Both players still have something to prove. Both wanted to be part of something significant.
They weren’t alone. Former AL MVP Justin Morneau agreed to leave the Minnesota Twins after a decade to spend the final month of the season in Pittsburgh. Journeyman outfielder Marlon Byrd raced from New York to PNC Park for a chance to reach the postseason for the first time in his 12-year career.
Their paths, much like Liriano’s, shadow the franchise’s fall and subsequent rise. Once considered one of the game’s future stars, Liriano spent five years searching for a new identity after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2007. He’s found one in a ballpark where he is 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA this season.
“He’s a Pirate,” Hurdle said. “There’s a lot of Pirate in every guy in there. They’ve got a flawed manager though.”
Maybe, but one that has proven to be a perfect fit in Pittsburgh. Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, Hurdle believes his team has turned a corner.
The Reds — equipped with postseason experience, as they’ve made the NL playoffs three times since 2010 — will try to make sure the Pirates have to wait another year before taking the next step. Cincinnati spent much of the season as the third team in a three-way race with St. Louis and Pittsburgh for the NL Central title.
Despite looking lifeless at times down the stretch, the Reds received a jolt by the return of right-hander Johnny Cueto. The 27-year-old missed most of the season with back problems but has been solid since his return on Sept. 16. The Reds are also likely to have in their lineup Brandon Phillips, their star second baseman who left Saturday’s game with a leg injury.
Cueto — with less on the line of course — has been clutch vs. the Pirates. He is 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA in 21 career starts against Pittsburgh, numbers that are even better at PNC Park, where he is 8-2 with a 1.90 ERA.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Cueto said. “I just do my job.”
If he can find a way to do it one more time, the Reds will play in St. Louis on Thursday. If not, baseball’s unlikeliest success story will continue, just the way Hurdle envisioned.
“I think we’re a perfect snapshot of our city,” Hurdle said. “We’re not perfect. We get down, we’re going to get up. We get knocked down again, we’re going to get up again. We’ll continue to fight for what we believe in.”