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McCutchen spurs Pirates' home-field advantage

PITTSBURGH -- For the Pirates, home is where you hang your crown. Yet the Bucs' home is also where hitters hang their heads, mourning drives that become warning-track fatalities.

The man promising to bring the NL batting crown "home" has barreled-up on that contradiction. Andrew McCutchen returns to PNC Park on Friday night accompanied by the rest of the first-place Pirates and enough flashing numbers to make Elias' head spin.

McCutchen's .369 average puts him in position to add to the Pirates' 25 historical batting titles, the most for any Major League team (St. Louis is runner-up in the NL with 22 crowns, while Red Sox players have won 24 AL titles).

Amazing enough that average is 153 points above what McCutchen produced in the second half of the 2011 season. It has a lot to do with Pirates ownership's reaction to that swoon: A six-year, $51.5 million contract extension agreed to during Spring Training.

"That freed up Andrew," manager Clint Hurdle said. "His attitude became, 'I can just go and play now.' Sometimes something like that can lock up a guy, worried about living up to it. Not him."

McCutchen is also contending for the NL home run crown. His 22 are second to Ryan Braun's 26, after McCutchen waited until the Bucs' 29th game to hit No. 1.

The future Home Run Derby participant did not connect for his first homer until May 8, a game he had also begun with an average of .298. In 61 games since McCutchen is batting .404, with 22 home runs and 58 RBIs.

"The thing is, those first five weeks he was getting pitches to hit, but wasn't hitting them," Hurdle recalled. "He's not missing them now. He's playing the game the best he's ever played."

All this makes the center fielder the embodiment of Pittsburgh's strange journey along the National League Central's yellow brick road. For he has built, and will try to maintain, those incredible numbers in a home park that was designed to be pitcher-friendly and has lived up to that blueprint.

Wait, you say, haven't the Bucs led the Majors in scoring since the start of June? That they have, and it is a contradiction that leads to the most confounding part of the Pirates' contention for the division title.

Good thing that Hurdle keeps saying that the season's outcome will define this team because, at the moment, it defies definition. Throw all of the team's stats into a numbers-crunching machine and it would sputter, emit sparks and finally just blow up.

The Bucs' well-chronicled offensive turnaround has had less to do with adjusted swings than with the schedule. Through May, which they ended with a ridiculous team average of .218, the Pirates played 29 of 50 games at home. Since then they have played 25 of 41 games on the road.

The Pirates have hit 64 of their 101 home runs on the road, where they average 4.5 runs compared to 3.7 at home. Despite this their 29-14 record in PNC Park is the Majors' best home mark.

It doesn't make sense until the spotlight shines on their collective 2.39 ERA in those 43 home games, more than two runs lower than the road mark (4.68).

"Our pitchers love pitching at home. It's a pitcher-friendly ballpark," Hurdle reiterated. "When you develop a home-field mentality, you build your club to your home field. What we tried to do is get the personnel in place we need to have success.

"But," Hurdle added, "our guys have gotten over the mentality that left field is too deep, that it is not a hitter's park. It is -- if you hit line drives and keep the ball low and hit it hard, good things will happen. There's a lot of grass out there."

There was also a lot of grass around the 457-foot center field sign in Forbes Field -- where 13 of the Pirates' batting titles were won between 1909-1970. Before that, Exposition Park hosted seven bat kings. Three Rivers Stadium produced four titles, while Freddy Sanchez's 2006 title was the only one in PNC Park's first 12 seasons.

McCutchen thrives among those grass blades, although his wrists can generate the bat-speed and power to send balls soaring over them. His 10 home runs at PNC Park account for 27 percent of the team's home total. He also is hitting 30 points higher at home (.386) than on the road (.356).

He shouldn't count on those MVP chants subsiding during the upcoming six games against the Marlins and Cubs.

McCutchen's version of his breakthrough is as monotonous as the two, three hits he seems to be getting daily.

"[I'm] just going up there trying to hit the ball hard, without trying to do too much," McCutchen keeps saying. His modesty belies all the hard offseason work the All-Star put in to get to this point.

"He worked on things he had to do to be the best player he can be and he hasn't varied from that for one day," Hurdle said. "It's a very special time and place for him. And the other thing is, he's having fun with it. Too many times, we get that head-down-and-grind mentality of, 'I've got to do well' and falling to pieces if things don't go right. Andrew is enjoying this ride."

He enjoys it the most of any of the Pirates hitters when the ride pulls into PNC Park. On a personal level that is. Everyone is stoked by the wins, but when it comes to maintaining offensive equilibrium, no one is as balanced as McCutchen.

Go down the line: Pedro Alvarez has 13 road homers among his 19 (a total which pairs with McCutchen to form the NL's second-best one-two punch, behind only the Milwaukee twosome of Braun and Corey Hart). Casey McGehee has hit seven of his eight on the road and Neil Walker is hitting 59 points higher on the road (.324) than at home (.265).

The Pirates' chief home-field advantage is knowing what to expect and how to prepare for it. Hurdle's lineup often reflects the defensive needs of the day's pitcher, whether his tendency is to get grounders or get to the ball in the air.

By the time a visiting team might have figured it out, it has to move on.

"Our confidence level spikes at home," Hurdle said. "It's not like we aren't confident on the road, but at our place and in front of our fans, it's just different."

Pittsburgh Pirates, Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, Casey McGehee, Neil Walker