Can Cutch stay clutch?

LAST SUMMER, Andrew McCutchen was a 24-year-old kid trying to do everything but accomplishing nothing. The small-market Pirates, owners of the National League's lowest payroll, had shocked everyone by entering the All-Star break four games over .500. Two weeks later, they were six games over, tied with the Cardinals for first place in the Central. Maybe, just maybe, the laughingstock franchise with a streak of 18 straight losing seasons -- a North American pro sports record -- would break the schneid. Heck, fans in Pittsburgh were even thinking playoffs.

Then, on July 26 in Atlanta, the Pirates lost a 19-inning heartbreaker. The next day, they fell again in extras. By the end of August, the beleaguered Bucs were 18 1/2 games back, and McCutchen -- a 5'10", 185-pound line-drive hitter who'd never had more than 17 jacks in a season -- was trying to hit five-run homers every time up. "When the team started to falter," says manager Clint Hurdle, "Cutch took it upon himself to create offense." Instead, he created problems.

"There were plenty of times when we were down a run or two and I overdid it," admits McCutchen. His strikeout rate increased from one every 5.3 at-bats to one every 3.8. In the season's final month, as the Pirates limped to a 72-90 record and a disappointing fourth-place finish, McCutchen batted just .171 and whiffed 25 times in 76 at-bats. On the rare occasion when he made contact, it was as if rightfield didn't exist. "He became very one-sided," says Hurdle. "Everything he hit was between left-center and the third base line." It was such an acute case of pullitis that before McCutchen went home to Florida for the offseason, Hurdle called the All-Star outfielder into his office and presented him with a winter to-do list. At the top? Rediscover the opposite field. To do that, McCutchen had to discover how to curb his ambition.

"I ALWAYS FELT like there was more I could do," he says. As an eighth-grader at Fort Meade High in central Florida, he led all of Polk County in hitting. As a senior, he batted .709. On June 4, 2009, four years after being selected 11th overall in the same 2005 draft that produced Justin Upton, Ryan Braun and Ryan Zimmerman -- generally regarded as MLB's greatest draft -- McCutchen made his big league debut against the Mets, going 2-for-4 with a steal and three runs, leading the Pirates to an 11-6 win. He then proceeded to lead all NL rookies in extra-base hits (47) and outfield assists (10). Despite spending the first third of the season in the minors, he was named the Pirates' MVP.

McCutchen is a quiet leader, and for two and a half seasons, his unspoken I can do more mentality played well in Pittsburgh. Then came the collapse. When McCutchen ended last season hitting just .259 -- and his team finished 24 games behind the Brewers -- he knew it was time to find a new approach. And not just because the skipper slapped him with a honey-do list.

You could argue that the six weeks McCutchen spent at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. -- a first for him -- made the difference, that it was the two-a-day conditioning sessions and the yoga and the pool sprints and the pushups with the 50 pounds of chains wrapped around his torso. But McCutchen's transformation wasn't about his body. It was about spending the offseason learning not to try to hit a homer every time up. About clearing your mind and taking what the pitcher gives you. "The thing about hitting is you don't want to be thinking about anything except being ready to hit," McCutchen says. This new philosophy had a physical manifestation, and Hurdle noticed it immediately when his No. 3 hitter reported to spring training sporting a new, awkward-looking stance that McCutchen had worked on alone in the offseason. It resembled something out of the Kama Sutra.

The hands that used to be shoulder level were now below the letters. The bat was tight against the chest. The front leg was opened up toward shortstop. The stance, McCutchen told Hurdle, would help him see the ball better, and his stride -- coming back toward the middle as he swung instead of out toward the left -- would guard against any pullitis. "Wow," said the manager, "you've put a lot of thought into this." His centerfielder nodded.

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the new stance was its stillness. While McCutchen's old stance was by no means busy, there was discernible movement. Now he was practically comatose -- the poster child for the National Less Is More Foundation. Of course, quietude is a luxury you can afford when you possess lightning-quick bat speed that draws comparisons to Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds. "Most guys," says Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, "they're either looking for something hard or something soft. Cutch's hands are so quick, he doesn't have to. He can adjust to anything." And this season he has.

Through July 17, McCutchen was batting an MLB-leading .374, with 22 homers, 65 RBIs and a 1.083 OPS, also tops in baseball. He became the first Pirate in team history to enter the All-Star break with at least 15 homers, 50 RBIs, 100 hits, 10 stolen bases and a .350 batting average. "When my hands are back and my feet are grounded, I'm ready to hit," says McCutchen. "Doesn't matter what the pitcher throws." His new approach is the reason he can turn on a 96 mph heater inside and yank it out, like he did against Detroit's Max Scherzer in June. (He was hitting .435 vs. fastballs through July 17.) It's the reason he's able to stay back on changeups, against which he was hitting .429, up from .286 in 2011. It's the reason the Pirates are winning.

Through June 15, Pittsburgh was 32-31, four games behind Cincinnati in the NL Central. Over the next three weeks, McCutchen hit .466 (41-for-88) with seven homers and 23 RBIs. In related news, the Bucs went 16-6 during that span and entered the All-Star break a game up on the Reds. The correlation explains why the Pirates inked McCutchen to a six-year, $51.5 million contract in March, why he has a double locker in the clubhouse and the admiration of his teammates: Following a recent game, infielder Josh Harrison donned a fake-dread hat and pretended to be McCutchen. Says Walker, "As Cutch goes, we go."

WHETHER THE 2012 Pirates can keep it up is a question as open as McCutchen's stance. For starters, they're still the Pirates: The last time they had a winning season, Bill Cowher was a rookie NFL head coach. And it's not as if the Bucs' roster is all that different from the 2011 vintage that teased fans before ultimately wetting the bed. The pitching staff is largely the same one that imploded after last year's break (3.44 ERA before, 4.78 after). Then again, there have been signs.

Emerging starter James McDonald (9-3, 2.37 ERA in the first half), unheralded setup man Jason Grilli (14.3 K/9) and 14-year vet A.J. Burnett -- a two-time World Series winner and offseason acquisition who became the first Pirates pitcher since Dock Ellis in 1974 to win eight consecutive decisions -- have stabilized a staff whose 3.47 ERA at the break was fifth best in the league. The bullpen, led by All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan, has been lights out (2.68 ERA, second best in baseball through July 17).

The offense still isn't great, but in a mediocre division weakened by the defections of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, it's been good enough. After averaging just 2.94 runs per game in the season's first two months, the Pirates scored the most runs in baseball from June 1 to July 17. Not coincidentally, no hitter in baseball has been hotter than McCutchen.

Despite not homering for more than a month to open the season, he had 22 jacks through July 17, second most in the Senior Circuit and just one shy of his season career high. Thirteen of them had come with runners on base (tops in the NL), and eight had gone the other way (most in baseball), proof positive that McCutchen's pullitis is cured. Says bench coach Jeff Banister, "He's using the whole field." Just ask Tim Lincecum.

On the last day of the first half, Lincecum is the opposing pitcher charged with cooling off the Pirates, who entered the day with a 47-37 record and a one-game lead over the Reds. They've hit 10 games over .500 this season for the first time since 1992 -- and the PNC Park crowd of nearly 29,000 is loud and hopeful.

With no score in the bottom of the first, McCutchen digs in against Lincecum, orange-tipped dreadlocks dangling from his helmet. As the home crowd's M-V-P chant subsides, McCutchen assumes the position: hands below the letters, bat tight to the chest, front leg open. Quietude. He knows that during his three-plus years in the bigs, no hurler has dominated him like Lincecum: In 10 career at-bats, he's hitless with three strikeouts. And yet the subtle smirk on his face suggests that he cares not -- that thanks to the sudden maturation of the Dread Pirate McCutchen, it's advantage batter. Gone is the 24-year-old who tried to do everything. In his place is a 25-year-old who tries to do nothing.

McCutchen works the count full. With one out and Walker standing on third base, Lincecum delivers an 84 mph slider, belt high on the outer half of the plate. McCutchen waits for it and, with the blinding whip and alarming crack of his bat, reroutes the pitch, the cheer from the crowd rising to meet the ball's arc. It lands over the wall, 418 feet away. In right-center, of course.

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