Pirates players reflect on big year

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ first winning season and first appearance in the National League playoffs in 21 years featured a recurring theme.

Superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who became the Pirates’ first National League Most Valuable Player since 1992, played a large role in the team’s success in 2013, as did a pitching staff that was among the league’s finest in fewest earned runs allowed.

Third baseman Pedro Alvarez crushed 36 home runs to tie for the National League lead with MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Alvarez also drove in 100 runs.

Second baseman and Pittsburgh favorite son Neil Walker had a red-hot September, and catcher Russell Martin, a dynamite free-agent acquisition, provided leadership and stability behind the plate as well as a solid bat.

The bullpen, led by late-inning specialists Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon, helped the Pirates to a 79-5 regular-season record in games in which they led after seven innings.

But the thread that kept running through the team’s 94-win season and trip to the National League’s Division Series was the willingness of each player on the roster to do whatever was necessary to help the team to win.

Three players who certainly fit that bill were on hand to greet residents at the James E. Van Zandt Medical Center Thursday morning.

Josh Harrison, who played second base, third base, shortstop, right field, left field and even pitched a third of an inning for the Pirates last season, displayed the type of versatility that helped the club during its second-half playoff push.

So did lefthanded reliever Tony Watson, who was a bulwark out of the bullpen in the seventh and eighth innings for the Pirates and even wound up with two saves.

And catcher Tony Sanchez made some contributions in his first-year backup role behind Martin.

“We had a special group,” Harrison said. “On any given day, we knew that it could be a different person [to help the team win] every night.”

Harrison had one of his moments in the spotlight on Aug. 6, crushing a solo homer off Miami Marlins reliever Mike Dunn in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Pirates a 4-3 victory and send the PNC Park fans into a frenzy.

“I hit a fast ball, I knew that I hit it good, and I thought that it would either go out of the ballpark or off the wall,” said Harrison, who appeared in 60 games for the Pirates and collected 22 hits in 88 at-bats, with three homers and 14 runs batted in.

Harrison – who saw action at second base, shortstop, third base, right field, and left field for the Pirates this year – grinned when his impromptu eighth-inning relief pitching stint in a game at Colorado in August was mentioned.

“I faced one batter, Cory Dickerson, and he flew out,” Harrison, 26, said. “I hadn’t pitched since I was 13 years old. It was definitely an experience that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

As will he and the rest of the Pirates remember the fabulous 2013 season and trip to the National League playoffs, where a wild-card game victory over the Cincinnati Reds before an electric PNC Park crowd preceded the Bucs’ extending the eventual league champion St. Louis Cardinals to five games in the National League Division Series.

“From the front office on down, everybody believed that we could do it,” said Watson, who was 3-1 with 22 holds, two saves, and a 2.39 earned run average in 71 innings pitched over 67 relief appearances last season. “Now we’re hungry, and we’re going to try to go out there in 2014 and keep it up.”

Sanchez, who will likely start the 2014 season with the Pirates’ Class AAA affiliate in Indianapolis, helped the Bucs complete a three-game road sweep of the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim in June by collecting his first major-league hit, a double that lodged itself in the Angels’ scoreboard.

Sanchez also made a highlight-reel catch of a foul ball in a September game against the San Diego Padres in which he momentarily disappeared from the sight of the PNC Park crowd and emerged with the pop-up in his glove after tumbling over the dugout railing.

“I played a small part, not a big part, of our first playoff run in over 20 years,” Sanchez said. “I contributed something to a playoff team, and that means a lot to me, and to my development as a player.”