Ron Cook: Clint Hurdle's ship not derailed by bad hip


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Figuring out a way to get Josh Harrison in the Pirates lineup? That's easy for manager Clint Hurdle.

Deciding when to replace the Pirates starting pitcher and go to the bullpen? Again, that's no problem for Hurdle, a lifelong baseball man.

But making the call to have much-needed hip replacement surgery? The guess here is that it keeps Hurdle up at night every bit as much as his biting pain.

Hurdle was diagnosed in the offseason with chronic arthritis in his hip. His agony has intensified in the past few weeks to the point he mentioned being on a "slippery slope ... This thing has gotten ahead of itself."

He also talked about the possibility of in-season surgery. It's almost certain bench coach Jeff Banister, with a lot of help from pitching coach Ray Searage, would run the Pirates in Hurdle's absence.

If surgery is going to happen for Hurdle, it would make sense for it to be next week during baseball's four-day break for the All-Star Game. Hurdle is scheduled to coach in the game for National League manager Mike Matheny of the St. Louis Cardinals and would have to withdraw if an operation is scheduled. But that would reduce his time away from the Pirates.

Modern medicine is a wonderful thing. Without complications, Hurdle probably would be hospitalized for just a day and would have to miss only a week or two of games. Just think 15-day disabled list.

"No," Hurdle said Saturday night when asked if he had a tough decision to make during the break. "Now isn't the time to have it done."

So much for that All-Star break idea.

Hurdle said it's not a matter of how long he can deal with the pain. He walks slowly, but he gets where he's going. The hip hurts him most when he sits down and gets back up. That's why the 3½ hours of a game provide relief for him because he stands in the dugout. Of course, his hip feels significantly better when the Pirates win, as they did Saturday, beating the Philadelphia Phillies, 3-2, for their 17th win in the past 25 games.

"I'm going to keep going for as long as I can be effective at doing this job," Hurdle said.

"It got real bad for two weeks. Now, it's feeling better -- if better is the right word. Some days, I can't sit. Other days, I can. It's like I'm having a tug-of-war with it. I'm going to keep trying to win that battle.

"I don't know what's going to happen. We'll figure it out as we go along."

The Pirates are fortunate to have Banister, a solid baseball man who has been with the Pirates organization for 29 years. He was a finalist for the manager's job when Hurdle got it in November 2010 and has been Hurdle's right-hand man since. Hurdle thinks enough of Banister that he allows him to run the game on those rare occasions when Hurdle gets ejected.

The Pirates also are lucky to have Searage, who is regarded as one of the top pitching coaches in the game. He has helped stabilize a starting rotation that was scuffling early in the season. In the past 26 games, the starters have gone 14-6 with a 2.90 earned run average. Edinson Volquez, the team's chief reclamation project this season, got the win Saturday, allowing just one run and four hits in seven innings. Searage has done especially terrific work with him; Volquez is 7-6 with a 3.88 ERA.

Is it too late to take back the ridicule we dumped on general manager Neal Huntington this past offseason for signing Volquez to a one-year, $5 million contract?

But the Pirates would miss Hurdle if they have to be without him for a period of time.

He was NL manager of the year in 2013 for a reason. His energy and enthusiasm are boundless. They showed up big time after the team lost a doubleheader in Baltimore May 1 to fall to 10-18. Since then, they have gone 36-23, the best record in baseball in that time. Somehow, Hurdle kept the team together despite injuries to top pitchers Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole and down years by Pedro Alvarez, Wandy Rodriguez and Jason Grilli.

Hurdle talked of being the Pirates' "North Star ... Somebody's got to hold the wheel, hands at 10 and 2."

But, mostly, he gave credit to his players and said how much fun it is to watch them show up for work every day and play sound baseball.

"I like where we are," Hurdle said. "We have a gritty club that has skills."

The Pirates also have a gritty manager with skills. It's fun to watch him work, as well. But make no mistake. That grit will be tested all summer as Hurdle continues to try to win his tough fight against his aching hip.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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