Clint Hurdle is a loud dude. But during his post-game press conference that followed Pittsburgh’s 5-2 victory over the Colorado Rockies, one of Hurdle’s statements was louder than the rest.
“This game is going to beat you down if you’re a common man,” Hurdle said. “You’ve got to be an uncommon man in this game.”
On its surface, that is a pretty obvious statement. Nobody in Major League Baseball represents the “common man.” They are all supremely talented athletes with extraordinarily particular skill sets designed to perform a set of specific, unnatural tasks that normal humans aren’t equipped for. That’s why people will pay to watch baseball players play baseball before will they pay to watch a plumber snake a toilet. Both require a certain degree of skill, but one is far more rare than the other.
What Hurdle actually meant with his analogy was that a baseball player will go through tough stretches throughout his career and how said player reacts to those hardships will go a long way to determine how successful he will become.
Both Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole have gone through some of these hardships lately and, on Tuesday night, showed just how uncommon they are when they bucked their recent history and showed up big in Pittsburgh’s win over the formerly-first-place Rockies.
Since he slid down from the third slot to the sixth slot of the batting order on May 26th, McCutchen has hit .397 with five home runs. He hit two of those home runs on Tuesday night.
McCutchen acknowledged that hitting in the sixth spot lets him relax a bit more than if he were slotted higher in the order, but cited the two days off that he was given on a road trip in Atlanta as the revelatory moment that prompted this hot streak.
“I feel like I had two very good, productive days in Atlanta,” McCutchen said. “Two days where I was really able to go get myself to where I needed to be.”
When Cutch was benched in Atlanta, his batting average was an even .200 and his on-base percentage a paltry .271. After 17 games in the sixth spot of the batting order, McCutchen’s batting average is now .255 and his on-base percentage .332.
Hurdle said that, with the help of hitting coach Jeff Branson, McCutchen has isolated the problem with his swing. That, combined with the new less-stress position in the batting order, has helped Cutch get off the schneid.
And now that the Pirates center fielder has once again found his groove, he only needs to repeat it over and over again for the next 97 games. Easy, right?
“I’m in a good spot, one of the best spots I’ve been in all year,” McCutchen said. “Now I’m just trying to stay there.”
Cole has also undergone some hardships lately. His last four starts was easily the worst four-game stretch of his major league career. The Pirates righty gave up at least four runs in each of those starts, 23 runs overall, and surrendered eight homers. Guys with stuff as good as Cole’s just aren’t supposed to be hit quite that hard.
So Tuesday night’s solid outing, where Cole gave up just one run on three hits in seven innings of work, must have been a breath of fresh air for the 26-year old righty.
The difference, according to both Cole and Hurdle, was fastball location. At some point during his rough stretch of starts, Cole mentioned that his fastball was coming out “flat,” meaning that it lacked the usual downward angle that typically helps induce grounders and reduce baseball-shaped dents in the left field bleachers.
On Tuesday, Cole’s fastball stayed down and so did his opponent’s hit total. In fact, the only run charged to Cole came on a two-out hit-and-run where Adam Frazier misplayed a ball in left field and allowed Trevor Story to score from first base on what appeared to be a fairly innocuous single.
Cole was efficient, he was confident, and, for the first time in a while, he was as good as advertised.
“He stayed off of the barrel, controlled their bat speed,” Hurdle said. “It was a strong outing.”
With Cole’s start, combined with strong starts by Ivan Nova and Jameson Taillon, the Pirates have strung together some impressive pitching performances this week. This newfound reliability on the mound has helped the team earn its first four-game winning streak of the season.