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Hard-fighting Bucs relish new identity

Hard-fighting Bucs relish new identity

LOS ANGELES -- The Pirates' come-from-behind win on Monday could well be a microcosm of all that has gone right through these first two weeks.

The team scrapes away for some early runs. The starter keeps the game within reasonable reach for the offense. The bullpen holds the game as is. And then they wait for the big hit.

"That's the type of club we are," manager John Russell said. "We're going to have to work for it. Everyone is really pitching in."

Six of the 13 games the Pirates have played have been decided in either team's final at-bat. The 6-4 win over the Dodgers on Monday marked the third of those six to have gone the way of the Pirates.

They've played a total of 13 extra innings through their first 13 games, and seemingly every game has been tight in the late innings. In only three of these 13 games has the sixth inning ended with the two teams more than two runs apart on the scoreboard.

"It's nice to come out on top on some of them," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Last year, it felt like we had a zillion of these and we weren't winning."

So what's been the difference in one year's time? Players have pointed to three different elements.

First, there's the bullpen. Three times -- including Monday -- the Pirates have come back when trailing after six innings, and not once have they lost a game where they entered the seventh ahead. Three different times the bullpen has inherited a deficit and kept it minimal enough that the offense has come back to win the game.

With so many games entering the final innings so close, the main arms in the bullpen have gotten an excess of work early. Either they've come in with the duty of holding a marginal lead as is, or they've come into a game where the goal is to keep the game within reach.

The latter was the case on Monday when John Grabow and Tyler Yates, who have combined for 17 appearances already this season, entered the game with the Pirates down one and kept it that way.

Then there's the starting pitching. The emphasis all season has been for the starters to keep the game from getting away early. Zach Duke's performance on Monday was an example of that working just as planned.

By no means was Duke sharp -- his fifth- and sixth-inning struggles were proof of that. But when he exited after six innings, he left with the team only in a one-run deficit.

"I was able to keep it close and give our team a chance," Duke said after Monday's series-opening win. "That's what [Russell] has stressed from Day 1 is just give us a chance every day."

Starters have steadily done just that. In the first 13 games this season, only three times has the starter left the game after putting the team in a multiple-run deficit.

Then there's simply a sense that no hole is too deep. A week ago, the team climbed out of an early seven-inning deficit to tie the game. And on Monday, even down to their final out against a closer who had blown just one save in his last 30 appearances, players said afterward that waving the white flag was never considered when perhaps it would have been last season.

"The atmosphere has been every different, even on the bench," left fielder Jason Bay said. "I think that has been the difference this year. It's not something you can put your finger on, but it's a little different feel."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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