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Hurdle making Pirates believe in themselves

Skipper's personality and track record has instilled confidence in Bucs @RichardJustice

Right at the beginning, Clint Hurdle looked his new players in their eyes and dared them not to believe they were about to accomplish great things.

Never mind the past. Never mind the people who said it couldn't be done.

In the end, maybe that's where all this fun the Pittsburgh Pirates are having began.

To know Hurdle is to believe what he's selling. He has a big, booming voice and a boatload of energy. He's got charm, too -- an endless supply of it -- and a physical presence. Hurdle has some swagger, too, that of a former Major League catcher who is comfortable being in charge.

Hurdle brought a track record to his job. He led the Rockies to the 2007 National League pennant and had a tremendous impact on the Rangers while serving as their hitting coach in '10.

His attention to detail is legendary, his knowledge of the game unsurpassed. But Hurdle's real secret may be in something else. For a franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs in 21 years, believing is huge.

When Hurdle tells players he has confidence in them -- and he does this a lot -- it's pretty hard not to believe. People on the outside sometimes roll their eyes at this kind of stuff, but that's just silly.

Do you like hearing your boss tell you you're doing a good job? Tommy Lasorda had a Hall of Fame career built in large part on constantly keeping his players confident and relaxed.

The Pirates also know not to cross Hurdle. He's a big man, and his players have seen his temper, primarily with umpires, and know not to anger him. If Hurdle wants the game played a certain way, then the game is going to be played a certain way.

From the moment Hurdle became manager of the Bucs two years ago, he let his players know that things had changed. Period. End of story. Things that maybe they'd come to accept -- that is, sloppy baseball, selfish baseball, you name it -- would no longer be acceptable.

Baseball people who'd known Hurdle since his playing days wondered how it would play out, this marriage of the relentlessly optimistic skipper with the franchise that had been down for so long.

Every little thing is connected to every other little thing. The Pirates aren't just good because their manager is filled with charisma and optimism. But Hurdle appears to have arrived at exactly the right time.

That's not to discount the job general manager Neal Huntington has done. He has worked tirelessly on his roster and can never receive too much credit for constructing a team that appears to be the real deal.

Huntington's challenge has been to find a winning combination while spending modestly -- the Bucs are 27th in payroll at around $67 million. That means he has to sort through the bargain bin to find talent others overlooked.

That, Huntington has done. At 34-20, Pittsburgh the second-best record in Major League Baseball. The Pirates got there with the NL's best bullpen, arguably its best defense and a rotation that's very, very solid.

This is a cautionary tale, because the Bucs were in contention the past two years at this point in the season. Both times, they faded badly. Both times, Huntington went right back to work shoring up the roster. This time, they look good enough to hold their own in a division race that includes two teams -- the Cardinals and Reds -- also in the "best team in baseball" conversation.

St. Louis and Cincinnati appear to be clubs without a weakness. That's not the case in Pittsburgh, where the offense has been nothing special despite nice starts by Andrew McCuthen, Starling Marte and Garrett Jones. But the Pirates may have enough pitching to overcome whatever they don't have on offense. Jason Grilli has converted 22 straight save chances in his first season as closer, and the guys in front of him have been terrific as well.

With starters Jeff Locke, Jeanmar Gomez and Francisco Liriano a combined 10-2 in the slots behind A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez, the Pirates have a rotation good enough to keep them going.

The Reds and Cardinals are going to be in the race until the end, both of them most likely headed for the postseason. But there could be room for the Bucs, too, especially if the rotation continues to be productive.

If you're one of the many people who think it would be a pretty cool thing to have the Pirates playing October baseball at PNC Park, this is heady stuff. Maybe these past two seasons have been about learning how to win.

Perhaps this will be the season when it all works out. At the moment, it's hard to doubt them. And if we did, we wouldn't dare tell the big fella with the lineup card.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Pittsburgh Pirates