His first job in high school was as a janitor at a bank, so Andrew McCutchen knows a thing or two about dirty work. "I had to get gas money some kind of way," he said. Obviously, playing for a Major League team beats cleaning toilets or sweeping floors.
Since his arrival in 2009, the 25-year-old McCutchen has toiled in relative anonymity, his standout skills largely blurred by the big picture of his club's consistent sub-.500 standing. It's the reason McCutchen can be among the National League leaders in batting average and on-base and slugging percentage, yet still rank 11th among outfielders in the most recent All-Star voting tally. "You play for the Pirates," he said, "and you're not going to get as much attention as somebody who plays for the Yankees or the Rangers. We're at the bottom of the totem pole. We're not on TV all the time. The only time you're going to see us on TV is if [Justin] Verlander almost tosses a no-hitter against us or one of our guys does something incredible. "But I don't care about the recognition. I care about winning." Lately, the Pirates have been doing just that, taking 14 of their past 21 to climb within four games of the Reds' NL Central lead. Yet because they stimulated the senses slightly last summer, only to completely crater down the stretch (they were in first place as late as July 25 yet still somehow managed to lose 90 games), you are well within your rights to take a wait-and-see approach with your expectations. "We believe it's more sustainable [this year]," manager Clint Hurdle said. "But our actions will speak louder than our words. Four months from now, it will be a much more meaningful conversation." Hurdle, though, believes in the depth of a rotation that -- led by a breakout season by James McDonald (5-3, 2.32 ERA) and a renaissance from A.J. Burnett (7-2, 3.52 ERA) -- doesn't get nearly the credit it deserves. Unlike last year's fizzled starting five, this one has strikeout stuff and benefits from an improved defense. And Triple-A options like Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke and recent pickup Henricus VandenHurk could eventually help offset the loss of Charlie Morton, who underwent Tommy John surgery last week. Beyond that, the Pirates have pieced together a shutdown bullpen -- one in which 35-year-old Jason Grilli's emergence from formerly gimpy castaway to sterling setup man has loomed especially large. This comes in handy, because the Buccos' offense isn't exactly designed to dismantle. It's basically McCutchen -- the only regular member of the lineup with an adjusted OPS above league average -- and a supporting cast that hasn't really found its footing. Let's put it this way: In the Wild Card era, the 68 NL teams that have reached the postseason have averaged 780 runs scored in the regular season. Only six scored fewer than 700, and none scored fewer than 600. The Pirates, at this moment, are on pace to score 553. Granted, the production has been much more fruitful lately, with the Pirates averaging five runs per game in June. But when you look at this lineup in totality (the struggles of Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez have been especially harmful, though Alvarez showed some signs of life this weekend) what McCutchen has accomplished is all the more amazing. Frankly, opposing pitchers haven't had much incentive to give McCutchen, who is batting .325 with a .382 on-base percentage, .541 slugging percentage, 11 homers, 13 stolen bases and 37 RBIs, anything to work with. Yet he alone is responsible for creating more than 20 percent of their runs. "To me," said teammate Casey McGehee, "it's an absolute joke that the guy is not top three in All-Star votes at this point. You find me three outfielders having a better year than him right now. I'd love to see them. He's the guy we look for to get those big hits. He has a knack for getting those hits off guys that nobody else is getting hits off of." McCutchen is the lone star on this squad, and he has a six-year, $51.7 million extension to show for it. That contract has had the effect of relieving the stress that comes from being the lineup's primary focal point, rather than exacerbating it. "It's gotten easier, if you ask me," McCutchen said. "You've got more pressure on you when you're living year to year on your contract and having to do well just to pay for next year. So from that aspect, to me, it's easier." As last year proved to the Pirates, the grind of the schedule and the continued climb toward contention will not get easier in the second half. It goes without saying that the strong pitching and defense that has been the hallmark of the 2012 club must continue, and it also goes without saying that McCutchen will continue to carry the offensive load. A little more help for McCutchen -- either from within or otherwise -- and the Pirates could have a real shot at not only cracking the vaunted .500 mark but contending in the NL Central. Last year's collapse hasn't earned them many believers in that latter goal, but McCutchen and Co. are working to silence their many doubters. "We're doing it," McCutchen said, "for the team, for the city and for anyone who believes in something that most people don't believe in." It's hard work. But it beats cleaning toilets.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.