On the Pirates: Rival general managers play mind games

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Gamesmanship pervades the trade deadline. Teams inquire about the availability of dozens of players. Potential returns become exaggerated to entice other teams to join the fray. Media reports fuel the fire: General managers themselves sometimes follow up on Internet rumors.

This year, opposing GMs applied a new tactic to pry the top members of the Pirates' strong minor league system away from the first-place team.

"There were some general managers that thought they could remind us that we'd lost 20 years in a row," said manager Clint Hurdle, who was involved in or kept abreast of all the Pirates' trade discussions. "That we might have overlooked that. 'You might really want to rethink how much you want to spend on a certain player, certain bats.' "

The Pirates, like many teams, held fast at the trade deadline after finding the expected returns too high for the offensive players they sought. They tried, according to Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington, but even their aggressive efforts weren't enough.

"When we started digging into this thing and some of the names that were coming up that got my attention, I was like, Wow, attaboy," Hurdle said. "[Huntington] definitely opened up our farm system."

Other teams, however, tried to take advantage of the fact that the Pirates' recent performance guaranteed they would enter the weekend series against the Colorado Rockies in first place in the NL Central.

"There were some comments made about how important it was for us to do something properly because of the position we're in," Hurdle said.

The scarcity of talent available at this season's trade deadline encouraged teams to use every available means to receive a high return. Starting pitchers -- Matt Garza, Bud Norris, Ian Kennedy, Jake Peavy -- represented the major moves at the deadline, in addition to the Chicago Cubs finally trading Alfonso Soriano. Not many hitters of impact changed teams.

"We're not alone sitting here today with people asking why you didn't do anything," Huntington said after the deadline passed Wednesday. "We feel good about this group and we're ready to move forward."

A step in the right direction

In 2007, when Clint Barmes, pictured below, was traveling back and forth between Class AAA and the major leagues, he experimented with lifting his left leg at the beginning of his swing. He only received 39 major league plate appearances that year. In 477 plate appearances with Class AAA Colorado Springs, though, he hit .299 with 11 home runs, a .364 on-base percentage and a .451 slugging percentage.

In the ensuing years, Barmes said, he returned to a swing in which he took no stride to start it.

In 2012, Barmes posted the lowest on-base plus slugging percentage over a full season in his major league career. His OPS is lower this season. One day, frustration took over.

"One of those days, in [batting practice], I just kind of said, 'You know what, I'm going to take the slow-pitch softball hack at it and see what happens,' " Barmes said.

Barmes lifted his leg high, came down and hit a line drive with backspin.

"Wow," he said. "That's what that feels like."

Barmes carried it over into games and has liked it. In July, Barmes hit .296 with a .367 on-base percentage and a .407 slugging percentage.

"It keeps me on my back side," Barmes said. "Spread out. I wasn't getting back and staying back long enough to really transfer any power and any weight forward. A lot of times, I was really gone by the time I wanted to start my swing. The timing of trying to keep that, obviously, didn't work out very well. I was rolling over balls and I just couldn't stay back."

After giving way to Jordy Mercer at shortstop earlier in the summer, Barmes started 10 of the Pirates' first 14 games following the All-Star break. Mercer had a .434 OPS from June 23 to the All-Star break, but had a .382 in the first nine games after the break.

Cardinals not going away

For almost four months, the St. Louis Cardinals ruled the NL Central. At the end of July, the Pirates mounted an assault on the Cardinals' entrenched position atop the standings and started August in first place.

"There's no panic, but at the same time we are urgent to go out and win games," Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright said during the series this past week in which the Cardinals lost four of five games to the Pirates. "We are not taking this lightly."

The Cardinals lost seven games in a row, the first time they had done so during manager Mike Matheny's tenure. They lead the NL in runs per game, but scored just seven in the first four games in Pittsburgh before breaking out with 13 runs in the fifth.

"Still making some hard outs, but it's the big hit," Matheny said after the Cardinals' loss to the Pirates Wednesday. "That's what usually differentiates a game like this."

Wainwright understood that the length of the season lent itself to winning and losing streaks.

"We have a veteran clubhouse," he said. "We've been through those rough patches. We've been deep in the postseason.

"We know how to come out of stretches like we're in right now. We're just going to keep going out there and grinding. Eventually things will go your way if you have the right mind-set about things."

Losing catcher Yadier Molina to the disabled list because of a sprained right knee will not help the Cardinals' cause. But Wainwright fronts a strong rotation featuring Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn, and the Cardinals lineup, featuring Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig, remains one of the strongest in the NL.

"I'm glad it's now and not in September, but you'd rather not have it ever obviously," Wainwright said. "It's a rarity for a team like we have to go through a seven-game stretch like we've gone through."

The week ahead

Schedule for the NL Central contenders (Monday-Sunday)

1. Pirates

Tues-Thu: vs. Marlins: Pirates lost 2 of 3 in Miami July 26-28.

Fri-Sun: @ Rockies: Begins stretch of 13 of 16 on the road.

2. Cardinals

Mon-Thu: vs. Dodgers: L.A. is 35-17 since Yasiel Puig called up.

Fri-Sun: vs. Cubs: Chicago 14-13 in July -- first winning month of '13.

3. Reds

Tue-Wed: vs. Athletics: A's entered Friday 31/2 games up in AL West.

Fri-Sun: vs. Padres: Not good, but better than Giants in NL West.

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Michael Sanserino contributed to this report. First Published August 4, 2013 4:00 AM


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