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Road House: How the Pirates are winning away from home

Rob Iracane
Big League Stew

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Baseball teams, unlike noted troubadour Willie Nelson, usually hate to go on the road again. All else being equal, home teams tend to win 54 percent of games while the away team wins just 46 percent.

Perhaps it's because the visitors are not used to the funky quirks of strange ballparks, or because they miss the plush, feathery beds of their own luxurious houses. Whatever the case, road teams normally find themselves at a disadvantage.

So far this season, only five teams have at least 10 road wins and, believe it or not, one of those teams is the beleaguered Pittsburgh Pirates! It's not often that a team is praised for winning just 10 of 19 games, but when the team is the woebegone Bucs, one can forgive an analyst for finding a detail worth praising at all.

Pittsburgh has won road series against the Chicago Cubs, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cincinnati Reds, and the NL West-leading Colorado Rockies. Their only road-series loss was a three-game sweep by the first-place Florida Marlins.

Considering the Pirates won just 17 road games in 2010 (over the entire 81-game road schedule, for a winning percentage of just .209), collecting 10 road wins before May 3 counts as a huge improvement.

Some are crediting new manager Clint Hurdle for the Pirates' turnaround, thanks to his insistence that the team change up its regular road routine. As per Colin Dunlap of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

"Doing some things differently," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "You become a slave to routines and, on the road, you can get into some bad ones. You get home late, you eat late, you sleep in, you get up, you go right to the park and eat ..."

So instead of having a fixed schedule on road trips, Hurdle is varying the times of team workouts and meetings. Getting rid of the boring, rote schedule on a daily basis could go a long way toward improving the team's relationship with its new skipper.

But others, such as Pirates blogger Pat Lackey, are not as quick to praise the job ol' Clint is doing. {YSP:MORE}

When Pirates star Andrew McCutchen ended a game by getting thrown out at home trying to tag up — despite trailing by three runs — Hurdle defended his player. Pat replied on Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?:

Hurdle's defense here is essentially, "If we have to choose between being smart and being aggressive, we'll be aggressive every single time." It's true that McCutchen/(third base coach Nick) Leyva's mistake probably didn't cost the Pirates the game today, but this sort of blindly aggressive stuff will cost the Pirates a game before it wins them one. There's no excuse for this kind of lack of awareness and the fact that Hurdle is willing to defend it makes it even worse.

Another Pirates' writer in the P-G, Dejan Kovacevic, criticized Hurdle on Wednesday morning for his tactics in a loss at San Diego. Had the Pirates won, they would have improved to .500 overall.

Hurdle also has the reputation of aggressively ordering sacrifice bunts, regardless of the situation, the caliber of player at bat, or the speed of his baserunners.

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So, instead of these in-game decisions or the revised travel schedules of a new manager, perhaps it is the emergence of young players such as McCutchen, Neil Walker, or Pedro Alvarez that has the team playing better baseball. Or perhaps a small sample size simply masks a team still struggling. Their 19 away games represent less than a quarter of the entire road schedule.

Still, with a win over the Padres on Wednesday, they'll have won five road series in 2011, one more than the four they earned in 27 chances in 2010. Last season's team stunk all around when they were away from home. They scored just 3.13 runs per game, compared to 4.11 at PNC Park. Pirates pitchers in 2010 gave up 101 home runs as visitors, compared to 66 in Pittsburgh. That led to a 5.48 road ERA, nearly a run higher than at home.

With 13 road games still to go this month, the Pirates could easily surpass their entire 2010 road victory total before Memorial Day. Maybe they are getting better quality breakfasts at the hotel buffet, or maybe Hurdle has instituted a "bring-your-own-pillow" policy on road trips. Either way, these Pirates probably don't dread the team bus rides to Pittsburgh International Airport quite as much as they used to.

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