For a second consecutive season, Andrew McCutchen finds his team in a playoff race and himself in an MVP race. And, for a second consecutive season, the former is much more important to the center fielder than the latter.
"I don't think about it at all," McCutchen said of talk of the MVP race. "It's something that I'm not concerned about or think about because it takes away from the team, it takes away from what's important. Individual accolades will take care of themselves at the end of the season."
After a slow start -- by his standards -- McCutchen is the favorite to win National League MVP, following an injury to St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina that could sideline him for extended time.
McCutchen finished third in voting last year after hitting .327 with a .553 slugging percentage. His offensive numbers aren't as strong this season -- he entered this weekend hitting .312 with a .511 slugging percentage -- but his play is drastically improving later in the season whereas last year his productivity waned.
Since the All-Star break, McCutchen is hitting .356 with a .699 slugging percentage.
His candidacy took a hit last year when the Pirates collapsed in the second half. The Pirates missed the playoffs and finished with a losing record for the 20th consecutive season.
His MVP chances this year likely will be tied to his team's fortunes.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, McCutchen is third in the league in Wins Above Replacement (6.0), trailing Carlos Gomez (6.6) and Clayton Kershaw (6.2). And, while his offensive numbers are not as strong as last season, he has been more productive elsewhere.
Entering this weekend, McCutchen had 24 stolen bases -- four more than all last season in two fewer attempts. His defensive play has improved, too. He is fifth in the major leagues with a 6.4 Ultimate Zone Rating, a metric that attempts to quantify how many runs a player saves or allows because of his defense.
In 2012, he ranked 17th with a -8.8 UZR and won a Gold Glove.
Perhaps nowhere has McCutchen improved his defense more than in his willingness to dive for fly balls and line drives. Twice in the past two weeks, he has made diving catches that saved runs in critical moments.
With two outs and runners on first and second Tuesday, McCutchen chased down a top-spun line drive, dived to his left and snared the ball out of the air.
"When it came off the bat, I knew it was going to be tough," said Jordy Mercer, who was playing shortstop that night. "But I don't ever count anything out because you see it time and time again, he makes unbelievable catches. And he did it again. When he left his feet, I knew he had it."
Manager Clint Hurdle said that has been a point of emphasis for McCutchen this year.
"He's worked extremely hard at improving his overall defensive play," Hurdle said. "I think if you look back to his first three years, you probably didn't see him stretch out and dive for balls. They were more sliding catches. He's actually stretched himself out in his comfort zone to do more."
It's that desire to always be better that fuels McCutchen.
"The best players don't think they're playing on top of their game," he said. "I think that's what makes them great players because they never feel like they're at the top of their game. Regardless of what my numbers are, I don't feel like I'm at the top of my game."
Said Hurdle: "He's never satisfied. He won a Gold Glove for a reason. There's been no backing away. He's playing as good a center field as I've ever seen him. I think he's improved from last year. As good as he was last year, he came into camp this year wanting to improve in a couple areas. And he has."
Melancon more thunder than struck
The shrill voice of AC/DC's Angus Young blares through the PNC Park speakers every time Mark Melancon strolls to the mound.
But while "Thunderstruck" is his entrance theme, Melancon does not have a booming personality like many of the closers who preceded him. Jason Grilli, whose seat Melancon is keeping warm while he recovers from a flexor strain, is one of the more boisterous characters in the clubhouse. And Joel Hanrahan before Grilli had an outgoing personality.
"It doesn't make him good," Hurdle said. "It doesn't make him bad. It makes him different."
Melancon has been just as effective as Grilli and Hanrahan in his first few weeks as the closer. Entering this weekend, he had converted his first five save opportunities since Grilli went on the disabled list July 23.
He said he learned a lot watching Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, his teammate in New York in 2009-10.
"He's been a great role model to a lot of people," Melancon said. "I was fortunate enough to be in the bullpen with him and got to learn from him. That's a big part of what I learned from him, just to go out, do your job and not be the spotlight."
Hurdle said some of the game's best closers have been the most soft-spoken guys.
"The two greatest closers of all-time have been flat-lined guys in [Trevor] Hoffman and Rivera," Hurdle said. "They never beat their chest. They had some pretty good music to come in to, but that's where it stopped and the pitching started. It's pretty much the same way with Melancon. As excited as you're going to get is the walk-in song. Then, it's just business as usual."
That said, the differences between Melancon and the man who was closing games before him couldn't be starker.
"We've got Grilli out here, and that's like having Kid Rock take the mound," Hurdle said. "Then, Melancon comes in, and I feel like I'm watching Clark Gable go to work."
The entrance and the demeanor might differ. But the goal always is the same.
"I like the shaking hands part at the end," Hurdle said. "That's what I'm looking for out of a closer."
The Pirates travel to St. Louis to take on the second-place Cardinals in a three-game series starting Tuesday at Busch Stadium. The Pirates took 4 of 5 games -- and first place in the NL Central -- from the Cardinals in a series two weeks ago at PNC Park. They have won 7 of 10 against St. Louis this season, including 2 of 3 at Busch Stadium. Including this three-game set, the Cardinals and Pirates play nine games before the end of the regular season -- six at Busch Stadium.
The week ahead
Schedule for the NL Central contenders (Monday-Sunday)1. Pirates
@ Cardinals: Pirates will face Wainwright, Miller and Lynn.
Fri-Sun: vs. D'backs: Only home games until Aug. 27.
Tues-Thu: vs. Pirates: Cardinals just 3-4 since losing 4 of 5 to Pirates.
Fri-Sun: @ Cubs: Also will finish season vs. Chicago at Busch Stadium.
Mon-Wed: @ Cubs: Latos on three-start win streak for Reds. He goes Monday.
Thu-Sun: @ Brewers: 6-3 so far vs. Brewers this season.
First Published August 11, 2013 4:00 AM