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Closer helped Pittsburgh find its swagger again

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

PHOENIX – Clyde's, the one on 7th Street in Washington, D.C., is the kind of place where a man can purchase courage by the pint.

What's known as a Victorian saloon, Clyde's pours the good stuff, cold and stout and, well, however you'd like it. For a place that describes itself as a saloon, Clyde's is reasonably quiet.

That's why, on a Wednesday night in the spring of 2009, Joel Hanrahan(notes), then a pitcher for the Washington Nationals, and two Pittsburgh PiratesAndy LaRoche(notes) and Delwyn Young(notes) – were at the bar.

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Joel Hanrahan gets a handshake from catcher Michael McKenry(notes) after recording a save on June 13.

Once, they were teammates as minor leaguers in the Dodgers organization. They'd agreed to get together while the Pirates were in town to play the Nationals, and decided on Wednesday after the game.

The Pirates had won on a ninth-inning run. Neither team was very good, but the Nationals were particularly atrocious. So was Hanrahan.

He was the losing pitcher and – wouldn't you know – his pals Young and LaRoche batted in the pivotal ninth. Young, a pinch-hitter, had lined a single to open the inning. Two more hits had followed. LaRoche was at the plate when a wild pitch by Hanrahan allowed a run to score, and LaRoche eventually walked.

By the third out, Hanrahan's ERA approached 7.00. In two-plus seasons with the Nationals, it was well over 5.00. Already, at 27, he'd been converted from a starter to a reliever. He was, he feared, pitching himself out of the league, a frustrating and ridiculous notion given his fastball that topped 95 mph and a slider that approached 86 and – when he threw it right – couldn't be hit.

In spite of his disappointment, Hanrahan kept his date with his friends (he had to, he was driving), stared over a glass at his latest failure for a few minutes, and finally asked of them a favor. Tell me, he begged, why I stink. Be honest, he asked.

Young and LaRoche looked at each other, then back at Hanrahan.

"Dude," Young said, "you look defeated when you're on the mound."

"You," LaRoche said, "have zero swagger."

"I knew," Young said, "I was going to get a hit off you tonight. Just knew it."

Hanrahan nodded. OK, he thought, that was honest. He smiled.

"It would have been nice," he replied, "if you could have told me that a little earlier."

They all laughed.

Hanrahan dropped them off at their hotel and on his way home decided his days of zero swagger were done. He was the one with the ball, with the big fastball, the 95-mph thunderbolt that had made him a second-round pick and a top prospect. If I'm going out, he thought, I'm going with my shoulders back and my chest puffed up. I'll go out believing in who I am, he decided, and what I am.

He pitched the following night in the ninth inning, this time with a one-run lead and a fresh attitude. LaRoche flied to center field for the first out. Young struck out for the third.

A month later, still not pitching as consistently as he'd hoped but not afraid of the ball either, Hanrahan was traded to the Pirates. And this week, two years later – after converting all 26 of his save opportunities for the Pirates in the first half – Hanrahan described his passage from lost to found while sitting in the clubhouse of the National League All-Stars.

"When you're down at the bottom and searching for answers," he said, "you'll try anything. I mean, you already got a 9 ERA."

As a last resort, he chose to believe. And then to act like it.

"It takes a while to buy into it," he said. "But, it's something you have to do."

In 33 appearances for the Pirates – and, coincidentally, in the same dugout as Young and LaRoche – at the end of 2009, Hanrahan's ERA was 1.72. Last season, over 72 appearances, the first four months as a setup man for Octavio Dotel(notes), the last two as the regular closer when Dotel was traded to the Dodgers, his ERA was 3.62. And, given the job as closer by new manager Clint Hurdle out of spring training, Hanrahan set a Pirates record for saves by the All-Star break and his ERA – 1.34 – is the lowest by any reliever with at least six saves.

How does a little belief in oneself play from the mound? He's throwing far more fastballs and far fewer sliders than he ever has. And he's throwing his fastball harder than ever before, averaging better than 97 mph and regularly reaching 100. As a result, he's nearly halved his walks per nine innings over last season. He throws hard, throws strikes, and believes in good things.

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Andrew McCutchen(notes) gets an ovation from Pittsburgh fans after it was announced the outfielder had been added to the NL All-Star team.
(Getty Images)

In part because of Hanrahan's shut-down ninths, and in part because maybe this self-belief has spilled into more areas of the organization, the Pirates are 47-43 and one game out of the lead in the NL Central as they open the second half Friday night in Houston.

They'd perhaps gone into the season seeking only to end a run of 18 consecutive losing seasons, the kind of futility a winning city can find tiresome. Eighteen in a row, that's a lot. By comparison, the New York Yankees have had 18 losing seasons since 1909. The Dodgers have had 18 since 1935. The St. Louis Cardinals, 18 since 1956.

But, on the backs of Hanrahan, fellow All-Star Kevin Correia(notes), Jeff Karstens(notes) and Charlie Morton(notes), along with one of the better bullpens in the game, the Pirates are pitching again. While the offense hasn't come as far, Andrew McCutchen is a star on the come, as are – the Pirates hope – outfielder Jose Tabata(notes) and third baseman Pedro Alvarez(notes).

Like Hanrahan, the Pirates weren't supposed to be this capable, not yet. But, here they are, in a position to acquire a bat or two and perhaps hang with the Cardinals and Brewers and Cincinnati Reds, and perhaps even shock the baseball world.

"I think they're about to learn there was a change," McCutchen said this week, "and it was for the good. We're a team that didn't back down and believed we could win every time out."

It's 90 games. It's going to get harder. The Brewers, by adding Francisco Rodriguez, just got better. They're looking for more. Albert Pujols(notes) is back, so the Cardinals will get better. The Reds seek pitching. And, still, after 18 very long years, Pittsburgh is beginning to take a peek again. The Pirates are drawing nearly 4,000 more fans per game than they did last season. They had three All-Stars. In mid-July, there's still a season out there, for the first time in something like a generation.

"The people of Pittsburgh," Correia said, "are just begging for a good team."

Maybe if they just believe …

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