PITTSBURGH -- Forty-six games to go. As the wire gets closer, your heartbeat gets louder, your palms get sweatier.
"You start running out of games. The less games, the less room for error," Pirates manger Clint Hurdle acknowledged. "There is heightened importance to the games, just because you're running out of them. The focus, externally, becomes more acute."
The Pirates have never been in this situation, not even those who were around last year, which by the middle of August was another lost year. Hurdle is keeping a close eye on how the players react. But it is also a distant eye. He is making certain to give everyone room to breathe.
"You have to hold onto the notion that you control only what you can control," Hurdle said. "If you're down, how do you respond? You have to play the game smart, you have to play it hard."
The Bucs will indeed play a hard stretch. They are competing for a postseason spot against teams that have all been there recently and have firsthand knowledge of dealing with the pressure: the 2010 division champion Reds and 2011 World Series champion Cards for the National League Central, and the Braves, Dodgers, Giants and D-backs for the NL Wild Card -- all playoff teams within the last three years.
"You have to make sure you play the game with controlled aggression late in the season," Hurdle said. "Playing to win vs. playing not to lose. Sometimes you have to find a way to dig deeper, tie your shoes tighter, and go from there."
Pet Hurdle adage: "The game doesn't know the game is important." Meaning, that first-inning at-bat is intrinsically the same as the money-time ninth-inning at-bat.
So the game doesn't change. But the stakes do. It's truth-or-dare nightly. High drama, and the curtain is rising.