Tim Benz: Better chemistry between American, Latin players key to Pirates’ success

August 6, 2018

Pirates outfielders Jordan Luplow, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco celebrate after sweeping a doubleheader against Brewers Saturday, July 14, 2018, at PNC Park.

Shortly after the Pirates sold off Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole this winter, general manager Neal Huntington tried to massage the anger of the fan base by drawing an analogy to the 2017 Minnesota Twins.

Hey, they were a small-market team that made the playoffs. Why couldn’t these Pirates do the same thing? Right?

Yeah, I laughed too.

Now, if the Pirates do make the postseason -- as their recent torrid play has put them in a position to do -- I should probably be first in line to get my healthy dose of “I told you so’s” from Huntington.

But you know who shouldn’t be far behind me? Huntington himself. And he should be standing outside the players’ locker room to receive them.

After all, it was Huntington who essentially forewarned of a pending firesale if the team didn’t play well over .500 when they tackled eight games in seven days before the All-Star break. Clearly to his own surprise, the Bucs responded by going 7-1. The hot streak has stretched out to 17-4, the same record the 2014 club amassed in September to pilot itself into the playoffs.

On Sunday, Huntington admitted he basically made the Twins analogy to “give our fans hope that small markets can make the postseason.” Translation? Maybe he didn’t totally believe himself while he was saying it a few months ago. Huntington must be a believer in his own team and his own message at this point though. Or, at least he believes in the need to sell that image to a beaten-down fan base which appears once again ready to buy in.

That’s why he traded for pitchers Chris Archer and Keone Kela at the nonwaiver deadline Tuesday.

So where did all this winning come from? How did a rudderless group of Pirates get so collectively hot that it got a GM notorious for selling off veteran talent to do a 180 and acquire talent instead?

Some of the players credit this year’s Pirates team for emotionally sustaining the body blows from the awful midseason play.

“The chemistry is good here. A lot better than last year. Or the year prior,” Adam Frazier said. “Even when it was going bad, the chemistry was good.”

The low-hanging fruit here is to say, “Well, that means Cole and McCutchen got moody, pouty and frustrated over two years of losing and wanted out instead of being veteran leaders.”

Maybe. But, Frazier wasn’t willing to go there.

“It’s not any one person or anything like that,” Frazier continued. “There’s a lot of ‘Alpha guys’ in here that have done a good job of including everybody on the field, in discussion, or off the field hanging out as a team.”

Frazier notes one specific element of the clubhouse he deems as being markedly better this year.

“It’s a good mix between the Latin and American cultures. In times past, that’s kind of separated teams, I feel like,” he said.

Ivan Nova -- born in the Dominican Republic -- was hesitant to draw comparisons to any previous locker rooms he had been in as it related to the dynamic between the Anglo and Hispanic players. But he suggests there is credence to Frazier’s point about the bond this year specifically.

“If you saw how early in the year when we were winning, we had all the music in the clubhouse, the beat,” Nova said. ”(Gregory) Polanco and (Starling) Marte were trying to incorporate the American players into that little dance. It was pretty fun. That was the connection. We were bringing each other together, whether you spoke the language or not.”

Nova went on to say some of the Latino Pirates are starting to be “more free” because they are more established and experienced now. Whether there’s a connection between that intangible and on-field results, who knows. But given the recent increase of offensive productivity from Polanco and Marte, who is to argue?

Clubhouse chemistry tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. You never hear about awful teams having great chemistry. And no one cares if good teams have bad chemistry, so long as they win.

“Whatever they believe in, that’s important,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Their perception is real. And it’s important.”

The reality of this team is vastly different than what the perception of it was as recently as July 7. So maybe we should forget worrying about the reasons how that came to be, and who really believed it. Instead, we should just concentrate on how long it can last. Getting Archer and Kela should help that process a lot.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach Tim at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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