As a minor league hitter, Travis Snider showed a penchant for power hitting. He won the Class AA Eastern League home run derby in 2008. He smacked 23 home runs that season, between stops in Classes A, AA and AAA and added two more that season as a September call-up with the Toronto Blue Jays. In 2009, his tear continued. He belted 14 homers in 48 games for Class AAA Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast League, a hitter's league, before earning another call-up to the majors.
But somewhere along the way, Snider's power dried up. It coincided with all-around struggles in the major leagues he just now seems to be shaking off.
"We seem to be the only ones here not concerned about the power," manager Clint Hurdle said. "A lot of people externally like to punch holes in things. We wanted to focus again on him being a good hitter because I think that's one of the things that escaped him a little bit. He had always been a good hitter, then the power came into play."
Snider might have been influenced by what Hurdle called a Blue Jays lineup with "free-swinging guys with big, strong grip-it-and-rip-it guys."
In 50 games with the Pirates last season, Snider hit one home run. His power numbers haven't changed much this year, in which he has two home runs and one long double -- later reviewed by umpires -- that some in the organization insist should have been another home run.
Scouts were concerned Snider's swing had developed in a way that eliminated a lot of his power potential -- specifically, he rolled his hands over as he finished the swing. That adds more topspin to the ball, which often keeps it from traveling as far as possible.
Hurdle said when the Pirates acquired Snider near the 2012 trade deadline, they focused on rebuilding his swing.
"The basic stroke and the strengths of the stroke had kind of disconnected," he said.
Once the Pirates got his swing back, the power would follow. The key was to make Snider a good hitter with power, not a power hitter.
Hurdle said Snider is growing into the adjustments.
"I think he's found his rhythm and his rhyme and reconnected with his hands," Hurdle said.
As for Snider, who has hit his two home runs in the past two weeks, he does not think too much about whether he is living up to his projected skill set as a power hitter.
"I don't worry about all that kind of stuff," he said. "I consider myself a ballplayer, and I try to help the team win. Whatever capacity that might be on a given day."
The Pirates have been successful this season in clawing back from deficits. Their 14 comeback wins entering this weekend were tied for the most in the major leagues.
And their ability to never quit on games might be borne out of past struggles.
Andrew McCutchen said they were on the wrong end of those types of games far too often since he came to the majors in 2009. He, and others in the organization, learned then that few leads are truly safe.
Now that the Pirates have more talent, they are in a position to inflict -- instead of absorb -- that damage.
"I think [after] being on that side so many times that now, we don't take anything for granted," McCutchen said. "We know that it's possible for a team to come back. It happened to us many times over the past few years. It comes with experience."
Players showed up at spring training with "a rock in their shoe" after letting 2012 slip away, Hurdle said. Now, they don't let any game go to waste.
"The mindset is the first thing that's got to come into play," he said.
What is most interesting about the comeback ability is that, statistically, they don't play well when trailing. When playing with a deficit, the Pirates are hitting a collective .237 -- ninth in the National League. Their .303 on-base percentage is eighth.
But their power numbers carry them. They have hit 22 home runs when trailing, the second-most in the NL. Their .711 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) ranks sixth.
"This team is never in a place where we're hitting the panic button, and I think that's the most important thing," Neil Walker said.
The Pirates have already erased deficits of four and five runs this season.
"Those are important because you're going to gain confidence from those games," Walker said. "You can certainly take the wind out of teams' sails. Teams think they have you down, and you can, at the very least, make their bullpen hit the panic button."
And as much credit as the offense gets for comeback victories, the pitching staff has made many of those wins possible by limiting damage and keeping the game manageable. The Pirates' 3.72 team ERA when trailing is the second-best mark in the NL, trailing only the Braves (3.42).
Next in line
With Jason Grilli unavailable after throwing 34 pitches the night before, Mark Melancon filled in as the Pirates' closer and earned his first save of the season Wednesday night.
But it wasn't unfamiliar territory for the 28-year-old right-hander.
Melancon joined the Pirates with 21 career saves, all but one coming in 2011 when he was the Houston Astros' closer.
When the Pirates acquired him in December as part of a six-player trade that sent Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox, the front office saw him as a reclamation project. It was a similar mentality the team took when they acquired Hanrahan from Washington.
Though Grilli is the team's closer for the foreseeable future, the front office believes Melancon has what it takes to eventually inherit the job.
Melancon said that's his goal and doesn't believe getting the final three outs of a game are much more challenging than any other inning.
"I get it," he said. "The fans get into it. The hitters understand it's their last opportunity. Sometimes that can work in your benefit as a pitcher."
Starting this week, the Pirates begin what Major League Baseball hopes is an interleague rivalry with the Detroit Tigers. The Pirates play two games in Detroit Monday and Tuesday before the Tigers come to PNC Park Wednesday and Thursday.
With the new interleague format, every MLB team has a protected interleague rival they face every season. Since the league prefers in-state rivalries, the Pirates are in a strange position -- literally and figuratively.
The Cleveland Indians make the most sense, since a natural rivalry exists between the cities. But the Indians and Cincinnati Reds were paired.
The Baltimore Orioles, likewise, were paired with the Washington Nationals. So the Pirates get the Tigers every year moving forward.
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org First Published May 26, 2013 4:00 AM