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MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

McCutchen embodies Pirates' fighting spirit

Homer plays key role in win and portends better days ahead for Pittsburgh

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McCutchen embodies Pirates' fighting spirit play video for McCutchen embodies Pirates' fighting spirit

MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

PITTSBURGH -- Earlier in the day, Russell Martin had issued his public provocation to Milwaukee's Martin Maldonado -- an offseason sparring session in the ring, mano a mano (with all proceeds going to charity, of course, because we want to keep this thing classy).

Across the locker room, Travis Snider sported a shiner, the lone literal bruise born out of the figurative weekend battle with the Brewers in which Carlos Gomez's slow trot on a triple wasn't nearly as offensive as the Pirates' inability to secure two late weekend leads.

Beyond the black eye, though, was the bottom line: Pittsburgh entered Monday just three games under .500, yet six back in the National League Central, a division that's already deeper than we had assumed. It's proving to be an unforgiving place to reside, and the proposed Martin-Maldonado brouhaha is nothing compared to the Brewers-Cardinals-Pirates-Reds battle royale at large.

"We can't control what other teams do," Andrew McCutchen said. "All we can control is what we do as a whole."

Monday's hard-earned 6-5 triumph over the visiting Reds, therefore, felt more significant than your usual April affair, if only because this was the first night this season in which McCutchen, the reigning NL Most Valuable Player Award winner, looked to be in control. It was his leadoff single that started the bases-loading process that ended with newly-imported Ike Davis' fourth-inning grand slam.

It was McCutchen's leadoff shot four innings later that erased the sting of yet another blown late-inning lead. And it was McCutchen's walk in the ninth that extended an inning capped by Neil Walker's game-winning bloop single.

Amid a fitful start for his team, McCutchen has endured a frustrating lack of pitches to hit from the opposition -- his two walks Monday night extended his NL lead to 17. So a night in which he supported the walks with a couple of singles and a heroic homer was a welcomed development, indeed, especially on the heels of his 0-for-6 Sunday.

"The longer he doesn't get hot, the closer he's coming to getting hot," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's just one day closer to getting hot. He was on base five times tonight. That's got to bode well."

If Davis' broken-bat grand slam -- his second slam against the Reds in this young season -- is any indication, his addition bodes well for the necessary lengthening of the Pirates' lineup.

Same goes for the single and double the struggling Pedro Alvarez ripped in his first two at-bats off Mike Leake. And Walker seemed due for the game-winning bloop, given his .217 batting average on balls in play coming into the night -- a number due for an upswing in good ol' fashioned luck.

All of these elements could go down as mere mementos of a night in which the Bucs and Penguins, who rallied late against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the NHL playoffs, combined to rip the hearts out of Ohio sports fans twice in the span of an hour.

To the Pirates, though, they need to be seeds that start the bigger story. McCutchen has been as disciplined as you could possibly expect in the early going. His 20.9 percent swing percentage on pitches outside the zone is seven points lower than it was last season, per FanGraphs.com, and Hurdle, for one, applauds that effort.

"This is the most significant change I've seen since I've been here, seeing the way [opposing pitchers] are going about it," Hurdle said. "He hasn't done a lot of chasing outside the strike zone."

At some point, though, a Pittsburgh team that leaned heavily on McCutchen in last year's Wild Card run is simply going to need more support. Given that the bullpen is not the consistent force it was in 2013 and the starting staff has taken a significant statistical step back in the early going, the Bucs simply can't afford to be the lean offensive unit they were a year ago.

To put it plainly, then, they're going to need McCutchen to see some strikes.

"I'm just waiting on my pitches," McCutchen said. "When I get it, I'm just trying to drive it."

When the Reds made the curious decision to bring in the left-handed Manny Parra to face McCutchen to start the eighth, it opened the door to the drive. McCutchen took a called first strike, then smacked an 85-mph splitter to the opposite field in right-center.

"When [right-center] starts playing for him," Hurdle said, "that means his timing and his rhythm is in a good place."

McCutchen said it was a simple matter of being "on time." And the truth is, his on-time performance probably bought him more time in "pitched-around" purgatory.

"It's going to happen," McCutchen said. "But oh well. You've got to make the best of it. Take what they give to you, and if they don't give it to you, just know the guy behind you is going to pick you up."

On this night, McCutchen had plenty of pick-me-up and pitches to hit. It was but one night in the long slog of the season. But given the abnormally early demands of the division, it was an important night, all the same.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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