PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates are, without question, the biggest surprise in baseball. They’re 18-8 after Thursday's 6-2 win over the Dodgers at PNC Park and own the best record in the National League. They’ve won nine of their last 10 games and stand 10 games above .500 for the first time since 2015. The pitching has been sharp. The bats have been hot. The speed has been dizzying.
For as well as they’ve played, the party could have ended before it started. An early-season injury to one of their best players had the potential to derail what has become the team’s best start in several decades. But due in part to a postgame meeting, one led by two of the team’s elder statesmen, the Pirates stand where they do today.
“I know what an injury like that can do to a ball club,” Andrew McCutchen said. “When something like that happens, it can easily catch you off guard. … So, we brought it upon ourselves.”
When the Pirates returned to their clubhouse on April 9 following a 1-0 win against the White Sox, not a single player entertained the idea of celebrating. The music was off. The mood was somber.
In the bottom of the sixth, Oneil Cruz awkwardly collided with White Sox catcher Seby Zavala, instantly crashing to the dirt and writhing in pain. Before anyone could process what happened, Carlos Santana shoved Zavala, taking exception to how Zavala yelled at Cruz. The benches cleared, and amidst the chaos, Cruz was laying on the dirt, tended to by assistant athletic trainer Tony Leo. Cruz was eventually helped off the field alongside bench coach Don Kelly and physical therapist Seth Steinhauer, barely able to put weight on his left leg.
Following the game, manager Derek Shelton said that Cruz had fractured his left ankle; Cruz underwent surgery later that day, setting the timetable to return at four months. The Pirates ended up winning, but winning came secondary to the health of Cruz.
“We were kind of devastated,” said third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes. “It’s a weird feeling in the clubhouse whenever one of your teammates gets injured, and you know it’s going to be pretty serious.”
What they did know was that their teammate, their brother, was hurt. What Santana knew was that he had to speak.
Santana, 37, is one of the team’s elder statesmen, one of several veterans signed in the offseason to help guide the next generation. There isn’t much that Santana, currently in the midst of his 14th season, hasn’t seen or experienced on both ends of the spectrum. With his team’s morale having plummeted, Santana took the lead, and McCutchen followed.
“We felt bad that something happened to Oneil,” Santana said. “We need him. During the meeting, I told them to keep their focus. I know we lost Oneil, one of the best players on the team, but he will come back. Mentally, don’t put your head down. It’s a long season. We have to play hard. We have to keep it up.”
There was one point, in particular, which especially resonated: this injury would not define who the Pirates are as a team. Along with their skill sets, McCutchen, Santana and other veterans were added for days like this, days where they could be a guide for the 20-somethings and provide equanimity amidst instability.
“I feel like every time that they’ve spoken and spoken in depth, it’s been honestly crucial,” Hayes said. “That timing of when they’ve done it and the few words that they’ve said, that’s just that leadership that we always talk about.”
“They knew that we needed to get in front of it,” said Wil Crowe. “That’s a blow. That’s something that we can’t let get us off track. They took it upon themselves.”
Mitch Keller, who matched a career-high of 10 strikeouts in Thursday's win, noted that during his first couple years with the team, the Pirates didn’t have veterans who could be a stabilizing force. Now, the Pirates have experienced players in every single position group, a luxury that Shelton does not take for granted.
“That’s why we bring in guys like that that are impactful because they can have those conversations,” Shelton said.
Since that meeting, the Pirates are 12-5. They’re clicking on all cylinders and showing no signs of slowing down now.
That early-April afternoon wasn’t the only time this season that the veterans have stepped up. Following the 8-7 loss to the Dodgers on Tuesday that snapped their seven-game winning streak, a game that the Pirates were in position to win, the morale in the clubhouse took a hit. Several players were upset knowing that they should have won. Again, McCutchen and Santana said the right things.
“Those two really just gathered us around and said, ‘Screw that. We’ve been playing really good baseball. Let’s keep going,’” Keller said.
With the help of those wise words from their veterans, the Pirates proceeded to outclass the reigning National League West champions, not just taking the final two games, but outscoring the Dodgers, 14-3.
McCutchen and Santana have filled up box scores for more than a decade. On that early-April afternoon, they showed the value that numbers can’t capture.