DENVER -- Andrew McCutchen is back on top of the baseball world. But it has been a challenge.
As the face of the Pirates' franchise, the past nine months have seen McCutchen faced with media speculation about him being traded, an initial decision that he moved from center field to right field and a season-opening two months that produced very un-McCutchen results.
Not once, however, did McCutchen give in to the temptations of self-pity.
"I always say, 'You have to think before you act,'" McCutchen said. "I try and do that, especially nowadays when everything you do, everything you say, it's out there with social media. All it takes is one wrong word, one wrong sentence, one wrong action and you have that hanging over your head, that dark cloud, for a very long time.
"You have to stop and think."
A smile came across McCutchen's face.
Stop and think. Sounds so simple.
And it is.
"When I was in kindergarten, we used to get these stop signs, and they read, 'Stop and Think,'" McCutchen said. "You wouldn't walk in a straight line and you'd get that little stop sign, and now you walked in a straight line. It is just a little thing, but it helped you. It sounds so simple, but it reminds you that sometimes you need to sit back, stop and think before you act."
Not much thought is necessary, however, to realize what McCutchen means to the Pirates.
"He processes well," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. "He doesn't overreact. He has a ton of confidence. He continues to fight. From what he went through last [offseason] and then in the first two months of the season, where he is now is impressive. It speaks of his inner strength."
What McCutchen went through and where is now mirrors the plight of the Pirates. While McCutchen has reaffirmed his status as one of the game's elite players in recent weeks, the Bucs have emerged as a factor in the National League Central.
Coincidence? Hurdle thinks not.
"Andrew has always been a builder," said Hurdle.
McCutchen joined the Pirates as a first-round Draft choice in 2005, the 11th player taken overall, right in the midst of a two-decade drought in which the Bucs were unable to finish with a .500 season, much less contend for a postseason berth.
Pittsburgh finally became relevant on the national scene again thanks to three consecutive postseason trips (2013-15), and after a step back a year ago, the club has battled back into contention this season.
It hasn't been easy for the Pirates and McCutchen, who found himself in right on Opening Day after 7 1/2 seasons as a mainstay in center field. Starling Marte had been moved to center, only to be handed an 80-game suspension for PED use two weeks into the season.
After going hitless in five at-bats at Atlanta on May 23, McCutchen's average falling to .200, he found himself out of the lineup for two days. When he returned, he was hitting sixth in the lineup.
"We talked about it and I told him it was about a chance of scenery," said Hurdle. "I told him the worst thing that could happen is he could be hitting with the bases loaded and two outs in the first inning. ... I told him I wasn't going to move him back [to third] until he told me he was ready."
McCutchen remembers the moment well.
"We chatted about a few things, even outside of baseball," said McCutchen. "It was like, 'Hey man, life's good. Things are going well. Health's good. Family's great. I feel great off the field. No distraction. It's just on the field, I really couldn't figure it out at that time.' We sat there and talk about that and he told me, 'Take two days off, clear you head.' I did that."
McCutchen did get into the game on May 24 as a pinch-hitter, singling to lead off what became a seven-run 10th inning. He sat out the next day, however, and he has started 50 of 51 games since.
McCutchen has hit .380 since that 10th-inning single in Atlanta, raising his season average to .292 with 11 home runs and 37 RBIs. He finally returned to hitting third, but it wasn't until June 27.
"The people upstairs kept asking me why I wasn't moving him up, but I told him from the start that when he was ready to call me, nothing was going to happen until then," said Hurdle. "Thankfully, on an off-day [June 26], he called and said, 'I'm ready.'"
So are the Pirates. They have gone 28-23 since that late-May moment. Though they lost their final two games in Colorado during the weekend, their victory on Friday night put them above .500 for the first time since the third game of the season. And they are in third place in the NL Central, just three games back of both the Cubs and Brewers.
And McCutchen? He is feeling good about life off the field, and now on the field as well.
"It has been a different year," McCutchen said, "but it's been a great year at the same time. To see where we started as a team to where we are now, to see where I started and where I am now. I was the National League Player of the Month [for June]. I'm going to have that thing front and center, because it is a reminder of where I was, that I could get out of my funk while my teammates and coaches picked me up. I feel like I'm growing, getting a little wiser, making me a better player."
It is something McCutchen can enjoy. All he has to do is stop and think.