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Playoff experience in Minors, bigs not different

The youthful Pittsburgh Pirates are in the midst of their first winning season since 1992. They're more or less a lock to get a taste of playoff baseball for the first time since then, too.

So, naturally, the question worth asking is whether the Bucs can sustain their success on a stage on which most of their players aren't the least bit accustomed.

Except the Pirates might be more prepared than you'd think. A good number of them have, indeed, tasted do-or-die baseball. And they experienced it in consecutive years -- as the 2009 Carolina League champions with Class A Lynchburg and as the 2010 Eastern League champions with Double-A Altoona.

And while it's difficult to overstate the difference between Minor League playoffs and a pressure-packed October in The Show, it's a relatively universal baseball axiom that success at lower levels breeds success at the highest level.

With Minor League championships being decided across the country, it's worth noting just how much of an impact those pennant races and title runs could have on the Pirates this season.

"I think that was huge for all of our development -- that knowledge of going through an entire season and finishing by winning, with the ups and downs," said Pirates reliever Jared Hughes, a vital cog on the 2010 Altoona team.

Pirates left-hander Tony Watson echoed Hughes' sentiment. He added that a pivotal piece of the current chemistry in Pittsburgh was developed while the players were winning in the Minors.

"First of all, we're all close," Watson said. "We all talk to each other, all the time. Our wives are close, our families are close. That camaraderie started in Pirate City and kept building when we won in Altoona."

Eight players on the Pirates' active roster were a part of the club that took home the Eastern League title three years ago: Hughes, Watson, Josh Harrison, Andrew Lambo, Jeff Locke, Jordy Mercer, Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson.

Hughes pointed to a specific moment in the Altoona season in 2010. The club was comfortably in first place for much of the year, but it ran into a bit of a rough patch when the dog days hit and the division lead dwindled to a couple of games.

"It was definitely a learning experience," Hughes said. "We didn't know how to handle it. None of us did, except the Lynchburg guys. You learn how to handle a full season -- success and failure."

This type of formula for success has been well proven in the past. Take it from members of the San Francisco Giants, winners of two of the past three World Series championships.

"If you develop an appetite of winning, you get used to it, and you really don't like to lose," Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford said. "Even if it's at the Minor League level, I think that's the mind-set that any big league team would want."

Crawford was a member of the 2009 and '10 San Jose Giants, who won back-to-back California League titles. Those teams boasted a host of Giants players who were instrumental in last season's title run, including Crawford, Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Madison Bumgarner.

The Giants' ability to develop their players is well-known, and as a result, the organization consistently fields winners at the Minor League level. No doubt, the winning mind-set, which was instilled early, has helped the Giants over the past four years.

The pressure of the Minor League playoffs is by no means comparable to what we'll all witness next month at the Major League level. But Giants manager Bruce Bochy noted that there's something to be learned from playing a series of must-win games. The way a postseason game develops is often entirely different from a regular-season contest -- regardless of the level.

"Going back to my days, it's an exciting time," Bochy said. "Even in the Minor Leagues, they're playoff games. They're exciting."

The primary function of Minor League Baseball is to develop talent for its use at the next level.

The Minor Leagues are where pitchers develop their deliveries, hitters develop their swings and fielders develop their glove work. But at some point, those young Pirates players must also develop an ability to win -- and what could possibly be more important than that?

"That was the first time I had ever won anything, honestly," Hughes said of his time with Altoona. "I had never really gotten to celebrate, and it was pretty special. With that group of guys, I think we all know how special it is to win like that. So we see each other around here, and we want to do that here. We want to do that in the big leagues."

Pittsburgh Pirates, Brandon Crawford, Jared Hughes, Tony Watson