PITTSBURGH - Clint Hurdle's 2012 mantra for the Pittsburgh Pirates comes with its own T-shirt. And it's the latest fashion staple in the team's clubhouse.
The black-and-gold shirts emblazoned with the words "finish" can be found inside just about every locker, a fabric reminder of what it will take for the franchise to break out of a nearly 20-year funk.
The Pirates were on the cusp of contention last year but a 53-47 start ended with a 19-43 finish to send the club to its 19th straight losing season.
It was a painful way to end a promising season.
Yet the ever optimistic Hurdle decided to turn a sore subject into a teaching point for one of baseball's youngest teams. Sprinkling the roster with a handful of veterans didn't hurt either.
"It's a good place to start," said outfielder Nate McLouth, who returned to Pittsburgh after spending three-plus seasons in Atlanta. "I think these guys know what's ahead of them."
Tonight: Philadelphia Phillies at Pittsburgh Pirates, 7:05 p.m.
Pitching matchup: Phillies LHP Cliff Lee (0-0) vs. Pirates RHP Jeff Karstens (0-0)
So do the guys the Pirates acquired in the offseason. Injured right-hander A.J. Burnett has won two World Series. Catcher Rod Barajas, infielder Casey McGehee and shortstop Clint Barmes all have postseason experience. McLouth and pitcher Erik Bedard have been in pennant races.
"It's just something you've got to go through," McLouth said.
The Pirates took an emphatic step forward last summer, moving into first place in late July before a series of injuries - then injuries to the callups - and the mental grind of playing meaningful games caught up to them.
"It wasn't the way we wanted it to go at the end, but we have spent the offseason thinking about what happened and it's going to fuel us," center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "We're going to be a better team because of it."
It's the next phase for a franchise eager to show a loyal but skeptical fan base last year's success was not a mirage.
"I'm encouraged by the work we've done," Hurdle said.
So is team president Frank Coonelly. While allowing the Pirates still "aren't the prettiest girl at the dance" he pointed to the team's aggression in pursuing Bedard and trading for Burnett - who waived a no-trade clause to get shipped to Pittsburgh - as proof the team's image is changing.
"We didn't hit the way this team can hit last year but I do think we pitched the way we can pitch," Coonelly said. "Now I think we need to sustain that. I think the addition of Bedard will help in terms if he remains healthy he can be one of the better left-handers in the league."
Bedard certainly looked like it on opening day, allowing just one run over seven innings Thursday. But the Pirates still lost to Philadelphia and Roy Halladay, 1-0.
Still, it was the kind of encouraging performance the oft-injured Bedard hopes to repeat throughout the season. If Burnett comes back healthy from the fractured right orbital bone suffered in February, the Pirates could have a solid one-two punch at the top of the rotation.
Throw in the bullpen, led by All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan, and the Pirates believe they have the pitching depth to avoid the fatigue problems that hurt them in August and September when starters Kevin Correia and Charlie Morton lost momentum and the offense couldn't score enough runs to pick up the slack.
Hurdle is quick to point to the rash of injuries that hit in early August as one cause for the slide last season. Forced to go to second-tier players to plug holes, the Pirates struggled to stay in games.
He's hopeful that won't be an issue in 2012. He pointed to the strong springs of McLouth, first baseman Matt Hague and third baseman Josh Harrison as proof. The trio led the team in batting in Bradenton. All three started the season on the bench.
"We are deeper," Hurdle said.
The Pirates will have to be if they want to inch closer to contention.
"It's a grown man's game at this level," Hurdle said. "Not that they didn't understand it but they got to wear it for four months and enjoy it and take some of the success then we got to wear the challenge of not executing well and face teams that know how to finish the last two months."