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Richard Justice

Morneau finally finds the sweet spot of pennant race

Morneau finally finds the sweet spot of pennant race

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ARLINGTON -- Now this is what Justin Morneau had in mind when his adventure began.

"You get brought over to contribute and be a part of it," he said. "When you're not doing that, you start to press a little bit or force it."

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Morneau was hitless in his last 14 at-bats when he put on the uniform Wednesday afternoon. To go 0-for-14 is part of the deal. To go 0-for-14 in his 12th day with a new team plays tricks with the mind.

He's one of baseball's consummate professionals, a good player, a good teammate. Morneau is also human, and after a decade with the Twins, after knowing only one way of doing things, he wanted to get off on the right foot.

Over these last few days, Morneau has reminded himself that the Pirates were a good baseball team before he arrived and that they didn't acquire him to do anything other than the things he'd done most of his career.

Still, nothing succeeds like success. Morneau struck out in his first at-bat, then collected four hits and made a sweet defensive play at first base in the bottom of the eighth inning as the Bucs completed a three-game sweep of the Rangers with a 7-5 victory.

"Everybody has to contribute," he said. "I just want to be part of it. I don't need to do more than that. If I can just relax and settle down and remind myself that, I'll be all right."

This was one of those days when the Pirates (84-61) were reminded that everyone does indeed have to contribute. There were two new Bucs -- Morneau and Marlon Byrd -- getting six hits in the middle of the lineup. Here's to general manager Neal Huntington for two more smart moves.

And in the ninth inning, with Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon getting a day off, another new Pirate -- veteran reliever Kyle Farnsworth -- finished things off with a 10-pitch save.

So after arriving here fresh off an ugly three-game sweep in St. Louis, the Pirates righted themselves to keep the National League Central race tight.

"It's a one-game-at-a-time team," pitcher A.J. Burnett said. "We've got another one tomorrow. This team never quits. It's a good thing to see. It's a good sign of what's coming."

Burnett set the tone by retiring 13 Rangers in a row to open the game before running into trouble. On a 97-degree afternoon, he finished with a gritty 6 1/3-inning, five-earned-run performance.

Manager Clint Hurdle maneuvered through four relievers for the final eight outs. When shortstop Clint Barmes banged a home run off the left-field foul pole in the eighth inning, the Bucs got some badly needed wiggle room after Texas closed a 6-2 Pittsburgh lead into a 6-5 fight in the seventh.

"That's a collective effort," Hurdle said. "Everybody gave us what they had, and it was just enough."

The Pirates on Thursday begin an 11-game homestand against the Cubs, Padres and Reds before finishing the regular season with six on the road against the Cubs and Reds.

After 21 years out of the playoffs, this homestand could have the look and feel of the postseason.

The fans "know what's at stake," Burnett said. "They know the situation we're in. It means a lot to them, and it means a lot to us. It's going to be a lot of high emotion on this homestand."

For Morneau, it's still taking time to adjust. He played a decade for one manager, Ron Gardenhire. Morneau's wife is from the Twin Cities. His kids were born there. He'd long since fallen in love with the place.

"There was a high level of comfort there, but sometimes being comfortable isn't always the best thing for you," Morneau said. "Change is good, and coming into a winning situation is something you play for."

Morneau was injured and unable to play when the Twins made the playoffs in 2009 and '10. So he speaks from experience about how special being part of something like this is.

"You don't know how long you're going to play," Morneau said. "You only get so many chances. To be able to come over here and be part of this is very fortunate."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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