Chris Leroux was taking a pre-game walk at a Pittsburgh mall recently with fellow Pirates relief pitcher Joel Hanrahan when they were stopped by a long-suffering supporter.
“Thanks for bringing baseball back to Pittsburgh,” the fan said while looking at Hanrahan, the Pirates closer.
The comment hit home for Leroux, the Montreal-born hurler whom the Pirates had summoned from AAA Indianapolis four days earlier in hopes he could help the team erase the memories of last season’s epic second-half collapse.
On July 25, 2011, Pittsburgh sat atop the National League Central with a 53-47 record, only to lose 43 of its final 62 games and extend its record for the most consecutive losing campaigns in baseball history to 19.
Leroux, who is expected to work in long relief for the Pirates in September after converting to a starter at AAA, is happy fans in Pittsburgh have continued to support the team, which entered play Tuesday only 2 ½ games behind St. Louis for the second NL wild card despite a four-game skid.
“[The fan’s comment] hit home and I realized this [playoff race] is real and we could actually do something. I’m excited,” the 28-year-old Leroux said over the phone from Pittsburgh.
“Last year, fans had pretty much given up on us at this point because we had such a rough August. We had our downs in August [this year with an 11-17 mark] but everything we’re trying to reach is still in reach. Two-and-a-half games back is nothing. We can clean that up in a week, less than a week.”
Leroux speaks confidently of his teammates whom he said were focused and driven at spring training towards not repeating last season’s tumble.
“Guys got hurt late in the season, [starting pitchers] Jeff Karstens and Kevin Correia. You can’t predict that and it’s tough to replace guys like that,” said Leroux, who spent the first three months of this season recovering from a strained pectoral muscle suffered the day before the Pirates set their opening day 25-man roster.
This season, Pittsburgh has yet to lose a key regular for an extended period. Throw in key off-season additions such as starting pitcher A.J. Burnett (15-6, 3.68 earned-run average after a trade from the New York Yankees), catcher Rod Barajas (free agent) and shortstop Clint Barmes (free agent) and the Pirates have developed a winning formula.
“Having veteran leadership like that is priceless,” Leroux said. “Those guys are awesome in the clubhouse. They treat everybody the same. A.J. rides me a lot and tells me it’s because he likes me. And there might not be a better guy in baseball than Clint Barmes.
“He’s always upbeat, even when he’s struggling. That’s just a good person to have in the clubhouse. It keeps everyone loose and, really, translates into wins. All three of those guys have been in the playoffs, so they know what it takes.
“When we get along like we do,” added Leroux, “the clubhouse is awesome. We’re always having fun, joking around, there’s music blasting. The success on the field triggers that.”
Pirates general manager Neil Huntington bolstered the lineup before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, acquiring starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez, corner outfielder Travis Snider and platoon first baseman Gaby Sanchez.
As for other guys like centre-fielder Andrew McCutchen, first baseman Garrett Jones and third baseman Pedro Alvarez, they’re all enjoying careers seasons in the major leagues.
“We’ve got the obvious guys like McCutchen and Alvarez who get all the publicity,” Leroux said, “but then you’ve got a guy like Garrett Jones and he’s unbelievable. He’s hitting .300 with 25 homers [actually .284 and 23, respectively]. Nobody really talks about him but he might be the heart and soul of our lineup.”
The performance of the bullpen, however, is what many people believe will be the deciding factor in whether the Pirates play in the post-season. Setup-man Jason Grilli and Hanrahan have been sensational while Jared Hughes (2.57 ERA, .221 batting average against) and Juan Cruz (2.78) have been solid contributors.
Leroux said it boils down to having confidence and staying positive along with a comfort level the players feel this season under manager Clint Hurdle, pitching coach Ray Searage and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas, all of whom are in their second season in those roles with the Pirates.
He described Hurdle as a good people person who remains positive, no matter the situation.
“You can’t get any better than Clint Hurdle,” said Leroux, a seventh-round draft pick of the Florida Marlins in 2005. “We had a team meeting [during a recent losing skid] and it was just about being positive and getting the job done. He’s never negative about anything and that’s a major factor in how this team is doing.
“Baseball’s such a mental game that if you think you have a chance [to win] then you have a chance. And with the team we have, we definitely have a chance.”
After 19 straight losing seasons, Pirates fans will take it.