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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Andrew McCutchen tried to channel his inner Marshawn Lynch.
It lasted all of 30 seconds. Sorry, mumbling one-word answers just isn't the Pittsburgh Pirates star's thing. Besides, for once there was something to talk about other than why his team wasn't hitting or the state of his achy left knee.
So after a couple of faux-terse "yeahs," McCutchen laughed and expressed relief going 3 for 4 with an RBI in Thursday's 7-2 win over Cincinnati, a rare positive night at the plate for the perennial MVP candidate and his team, which has started a season of soaring expectations as nothing but a distant speck in first-place St. Louis' rearview mirror.
The Pirates fell nine games behind the Cardinals after an 8-5 loss on Friday. While there are still five months to go, for a club that preached the importance of winning the NL Central instead of settling for the wild card as it has done the last two years, spotting St. Louis a week's worth of games isn't exactly the a great idea.
"We're not right where we need to be yet and that's the great thing," McCutchen said. "We're doing OK."
OK might be pushing it.
McCutchen's first three-hit performance of the season lifted his batting average from .188 to .210. It nudged higher to .219 after a single and a double on Friday. Yet even with the Pirates getting 23 hits in their last two games they still rank in the bottom third in the majors in several significant offensive categories, including batting, home runs, runs and on-base percentage. This from largely the same group that mashed its way to a second straight playoff berth a year ago.
Only three regulars are hitting over .250. Third baseman Josh Harrison, an All-Star last season who parlayed his success into a lengthy contract extension, has gotten so mixed up manager Clint Hurdle dropped him out of the leadoff spot and gave him an unscheduled day off earlier this week hoping to give the energetic sparkplug a chance to reset.
Progress is slow. Harrison collected his second hit of the month on Friday night. It's not much, but it's something.
At this point, the Pirates can't afford to be picky when it comes to bright spots. They also can't afford to panic. Hurdle is quick to point out the Pirates were 12-20 through 32 games a year ago and nearly caught the Cardinals for the division title.
"It's not a game that's played well when played with urgency," Hurdle said. "Aggressive? Yes. Urgent? Not so much. It goes back to trust."
Meaning trust the guy behind you to do his job. That hasn't happened much of late. During the five-game skid that ended on Thursday, Pittsburgh left 54 runners on base, including 37 while getting swept in St. Louis, three losses that all come on walk-off hits by the Cardinals.
Things grew so bad McCutchen decided it was time to shoulder the blame. After another fruitless night against the Reds on Tuesday he vented, mostly at himself. He called his play "under mediocre" while basically apologizing for not playing at a level commensurate with his status or his $10 million paycheck.
Not that his teammates wanted to hear it.
"It's very unfair for him to take full responsibility for what's going on," second baseman Neil Walker said. "There are seven other position guys on a given day and 24 other in the locker room."
There are at least five guys who are doing their part. Pittsburgh is hovering near .500 thanks in large part to a starting staff that has been dominant at times. The Pirates are third in the majors in team ERA. The two teams ahead of them — St. Louis and the New York Mets — are well in front of their respective divisions.
Not Pittsburgh, where A.J. Burnett is second in the National League in ERA (1.66) but didn't pick up his first win of the season until Thursday. Put the onus on an offense that scored five runs total in his first five starts.
Yet Burnett is keeping an even keel. It's what happens after you've been in the majors for 17 seasons. When he earned his first victory for the Pirates since Sept. 27, 2013 he was quick to credit the eight guys on the field with him for sticking with it.
"You've got some pros going through some stuff and they're not fazed by it," Burnett said. "And that's more important than anything."
Besides, McCutchen is a career .314 hitter in May and a .321 hitter in June. The mercury reached the upper-80s in Pittsburgh on Friday. McCutchen figures that can only mean one thing.
"When we get hot," he said, "we're going to really get hot."
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