Up-the-middle defense could be difference

Up-the-middle defense could be difference

SAN DIEGO -- Pittsburgh's late-season swoon in 2011 has been well documented. The Cinderella Pirates broke out of the gates strong and appeared to be in contention after the season's first couple months, then fell off the table.

But a year later, that same Pittsburgh squad is still very much in contention in late August, something its manager believes is mainly the product of leadership up the middle that the club simply didn't have in 2011.

The Pirates added catcher Rod Barajas and shortstop Clint Barmes this offseason, and the experience at those two crucial positions has stabilized the center of the Pittsburgh defense, as well as evened out the youth in the clubhouse.

The Barajas-Barmes duo has combined with emerging stars Andrew McCutchen in center field and Neil Walker at second base to give the Pirates a glut of leadership and composure up the middle that wasn't there a year ago.

"The addition of these guys, we added experience, we added leadership, and we added strength up the middle," Hurdle said. "I think the backbone of what you do is always built up the middle. With the addition of Barajas, [A.J.] Burnett and Barmes, and the two young leaders in McCutchen and Walker, it's all kind of come together."

Barajas has caught 83 of the Pirates' 123 games, and while he has struggled with the bat (hitting .195 coming into Wednesday), Hurdle believes his defensive presence and experience behind the plate have been invaluable.

"We're aware of what hasn't happened for him offensively, but it's what he's done for us defensively," Hurdle said. "Helping grow up the staff, not just the starters, but the bullpen."

Barmes has played 110 games and is hitting .225, though as with Barajas, it's his veteran presence and defensive prowess that Hurdle says makes his addition so important.

"With Barmes in the middle, he's been an outstanding addition from the defensive side of the ball," Hurdle said. "[He's] playing 27 outs, not extending innings, [making guys] not have to throw more pitches."

Hurdle hopes those additions help the Pirates build on what they've already accomplished this season, and keep Pittsburgh going strong down the stretch and into the playoffs.

"Defensively, we're solid. Leadership-wise, those additions have been great," Hurdle said. "We were built better coming in this year than we were coming in last year, and these guys, they just feel we're a better team."