Pirates want to take ‘next step’

Andrew McCutchen was short and to the point.

Among the Pittsburgh Pirates’ team goals for 2013, the Bucs’ all-star centerfielder gift-wrapped his answer in a single word: “Finish.”

Makes perfect sense considering the Pirates seriously threatened to become postseason contenders relatively late into the 2012 campaign before experiencing a frustrating collapse.

At one point, it appeared nearly impossible for skipper Clint Hurdle’s achieving ballclub to falter to the point of finishing below .500 for a record 21st consecutive season.

Unfortunately, the Bucs began an unexpected downfall and failed to stop the bleeding, eventually culminating with a 79-83 record, finishing some 18 games behind NL Central frontrunner Cincinnati.

“Of course, it was frustrating. For all of us in the clubhouse,” McCutchen admitted. “We just weren’t able to maintain the consistency (to remain in the race). And you couldn’t point fingers at any one player. It was definitely a collective effort.”

So, is there any reason to suggest McCutchen and his teammates will be able to retain their focus over the course of 162 games next summer?

“We’re a year older…we’ve made some offseason improvements. More than anything, we need to put together a consistent season.”

McCutchen was one of a number of Buccos who made area shopping mall appearances last week.

“(Getting out here) and meeting the fans who support us is important and actually, a lot of fun for us,” McCutchen added.

“We want to go out and put a winning team on the field (for them). We fell short the past two seasons. Now, we want to take it a step further.”

McCutchen certainly did his part last summer, hitting a robust .327, cranking out 31 home runs and driving in 96.

In line for potential MVP honors late into the campaign, McCutchen couldn’t quite sustain what had been a torrid pace.

“I don’t feel like I let (the MVP) slip away,” he stressed. “I’m disappointed I didn’t finish stronger, but overall, my (final) numbers, I felt, were all right.”

RELIEVER Jared Hughes returns following a productive (2-2, 2.85 ERA) season out of the bullpen. “As a team, we have something to prove,” Hughes advised.

“We need to prove to ourselves we can play out a full season and win our share of games in the process. Considering how close we came last year, that’s a totally realistic goal.”

Like a majority of Pirate fans, Hughes looks forward to working to newly-acquired catcher Russell Martin whom Hughes refers to as a “definite upgrade.”

“A great pick-up for our ballclub,” Hughes acknowledged. “We’re getting a proven player with multi-skills. From what I’ve been told, Martin is excellent working with pitchers. It’s going to be a win-win situation for us.”

A LATE-SEASON injury cost second baseman Neil Walker a number of games he was forced to observe from the dugout.

“I can’t describe how frustrating it was not being able to contribute,” Walker admitted during a caravan stop at Steubenville.

“There’s only so much you can chart and take notes on (from the dugout). The idea is being (out there) making plays in the field and hopefully, producing (at the plate.”

Walker, in 129 games, hit .280, hammering 14 home runs and driving in 69 teammates.

“I always strive for consistency (as a switch hitter),” Walker continued. “It’s no secret I’ve been more productive from the left side. In the off-season, I’ve been concentrating on hitting from the right side. My goal is to become a better (right side) hitter this season.”

A western Pennsylvania native, Walker has a vested interest in the franchise, having followed the Black & Gold for years.

“Like all the guys who’ve played here before me, I want to be part of (a Pirates team) that not only has a winning record but plays in the postseason. I really believe our team now is not at all that far away. That’s why we’re all looking forward to (the coming season). Can we take the next step? That’s our goal.”

THIRD baseman Pedro Alvarez enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2012. Alvarez clubbed 30 home runs and knocked in 85. Following a slow start in April and May, Alvarez elevated a 210 batting average to .244 by season’s end.

Hitting for a higher average is an immediate goal, Alvarez explains. “Obviously, you want to make improvements in all areas,” he stated.

“I know I struck out way too many times. That’s one area I’m really concentrating on. That, and just everything else in general. I need to improve both at the plate and in the field.”

Unlike a season ago, the Bucs seem set at virtually every starting position. “They’ll still be competition (in spring training) but I feel like we’re pretty much set,” Alvarez added. “That should work to our advantage as a team. I think it’s important we get off to a solid start. And that’s something we’re definitely capable of.”


THE Pirates open the 2013 season at PNC Park with the Chicago Cubs. The home opener is set Monday April 1, with the first pitch at 1:35.

After a day off, the Bucs and Cubs play Wednesday and Thursday (3-4) at 7:05 and 12:35 p.m., respectively.

Following the series’ opener, Pittsburgh makes an early west coast swing, playing three games against the Dodgers followed by three at Arizona.

The Bucs then return for a 10-game homestand (April 12-21), facing the Reds, Cardinals and Braves.

Hurdle’s club plays a rare home-and-home consecutive four-game series with the defending A.L. champion Detroit Tigers. The first two games are May 27 (Memorial Day) and 28 in Motown followed by two more tilts vs. the Tigers, Wednesday and Thursday the 29th and 30th at PNC Park…

Unfortunately, Pittsburgh doesn’t meet the Cleveland Indians in 2013. In addition to Detroit, the Bucs oppose A.L. foes Oakland, Seattle, Texas, the L.A. Angels and Houston. The Astros are now residents of the American League….

The Pirates’ 2013 schedule features just one holiday home game. Philadelphia’s Phillies are in July 2-4…..Game time on the 4th is 1:35 p.m.