NASHVILLE - Wednesday afternoon at Baseball's Winter Meetings, the immaculately coiffed manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Clint Hurdle, spent a good 30 minutes answering questions tossed his way by the interested baseball writers in the room.
When I felt the best was when we beat the Cardinals at home. I thought when we beat 'em back-to-back, we were in pretty good shape."
That was the 29th of August, and the Pirates were just one game behind the Cardinals in the wild-card standings. From that point, the Pirates lost 23 of their last 32 games; in all the major leagues, only the Red Sox were worse. Which was how the Pirates went from 70-60 in late August to their 20th straight losing season. With a bullet.
This defeat had many handmaidens, of course. But it was hard to miss James McDonald, who probably should have been an All-Star, then went 3-5 with a 7.52 ERA in the second half of the season. So I asked Hurdle what happened, and what he thought about McDonald's prospects in 2013.
Well, I think obviously if he would have had a second half like the first half, he'd be a lockdown probably No.3 guy in your rotation ... I still have a good feeling about James McDonald. And what I don't believe people put enough resolve into or thought into, this is a converted guy. This guy hasn't been pitching since he was six. It was the first time he had a large amount of success, bundled in a half of a season. I think that was a new experience for him, as well.
Well, that's true to a point. McDonald played the outfield in the Dodgers' system in 2004 and '05, but 2012 was his seventh full season as a professional pitcher. For what that' worth. He actually put together a full good season in 2008, between Double- and Triple-A. And since then he's been inconsistent, sometimes looking brilliant and other times, not so much.
Someone else followed up, and that's when Hurdle really got into it ...
This game is predicated by a first thought. If the first thought is not positive, it's hard to have success. I really believe that. And you went from a guy that had success upon success, and then the momentum, the positive traction that was built through the first half ... the conversation we've had, and pretty much we've both gotten to the same place with, his focus going into the season was, "I need to do A and B well, we'll see where that takes me."
He did that well, and he looked up at the end of the first half and he said, "My goodness, look at this, if I can do C and D well, I can take this to another level."
Sometimes the enemy of the good is great. You want to be great, you have to be good for a long time. I think that's a valuable lesson that James was able to walk away from last season. I think he tried to add more. That got things out of hand.
Second half of the season, he didn't feel -- if he didn't throw all four of his pitches good coming out of the bullpen, "I don't know what's going to happen tonight."
The good news is that nobody's said anything about an injury. The bad news is ... Well, things do sometimes get away from us, and that's what seems to have happened to James McDonald: the season just got away from him. But you can't help wondering why it won't happen again. Experience cures some ills. But not all. McDonald's got so much raw talent, though, that the Pirates have little choice but to wind him up and hope for the best.