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After 20 years, accepting Pirates as winners isn’t exactly easy

Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett yells after Cubs pinch hitter Adrian Cardenas singled eighth inning break up his no-hitter. | Tom

Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett yells after Cubs pinch hitter Adrian Cardenas singled in the eighth inning to break up his no-hitter. | Tom Cruze-Sun-Times

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Updated: September 3, 2012 1:25PM

Judging by his expression, the question was as exasperating as it was inevitable for manager Clint Hurdle.

His Pittsburgh Pirates had just looked about as bad as a ball team can look in taking a 14-4 drubbing from the fifth-place Cubs on Tuesday at Wrigley Field, on the heels of a 9-5 spanking from the last-place Astros in Houston the day before.

They were still 14 games over .500 and within three of National League Central-leading Cincinnati despite this ‘‘skid.’’ But the Pirates owned a 54-49 record on this date in 2011, only to collapse and go 18-41 in their remaining 59 games, assuring themselves of a record 19th consecutive losing season.

When failure is so ingrained in a team’s culture, even a two-game losing streak prompts here-we-go-again trepidation. Hurdle, though, was having none of it.

‘‘Different year, different team,’’ he insisted. ‘‘We don’t even think about last year, or talk about it. We’ve turned the page, and I wish everyone else would.’’

Hurdle predicted a bounce-back game would cleanse the clubhouse of any sense of foreboding, and he was confident one was at hand with staff ace A.J. Burnett taking the mound — the former Yankee was 6-1 in his seven starts after losses in his first season in Pittsburgh.

Sure enough, Burnett stopped the streak at two with emphatic certainty, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning Wednesday before settling for a one-hitter and a 5-0 win that raised his record to 13-3. Bequeathed to Pittsburgh in a salary-dumping move after three indifferent seasons in New York, the occasionally crusty Burnett, 35, is helping the Pirates write the feel-good story of the season.

‘‘He’s a pro,’’ Hurdle said. ‘‘When he got here, I told him we needed a guy with a slow heartbeat who’d been through it before and could show the younger guys how it’s done, but he should only do it if he wanted to do it and was comfortable doing it. He has taken over as the leader of the staff.’’

Burnett has been something of a happy accident for the Pirates. The driving force behind their emergence is Andrew McCutchen, a five-tool center fielder who would probably win the NL MVP award if the voting were held today.

McCutchen, 25, leads the league with a .368 batting average and the Pirates in homers (22), RBI (66) and OPS (a remarkable 1.053). He steals bases, plays a graceful center field and throws like a Pro Bowl quarterback.

Not since a young Barry Bonds was leading the Pirates to three straight division titles has Pittsburgh seen a player so talented. A first-round draft choice in 2007, McCutchen also represents the small-market Pirates’ emphasis on shrewd scouting and careful player development. Second baseman Neil Walker (2004) and third baseman Pedro Alvarez (2008) were also first-round draft picks.

‘‘He’s putting up crazy numbers, Nintendo numbers,’’ Hurdle said. ‘‘He’s one of the most talented, dynamic young players in baseball. And he’s a pleasure to manage.’’

If McCutchen is the heart of the Pirates, Walker is their soul. The 26-year-old switch-hitter grew up in Pittsburgh and was 7 when the Pirates won the last of those three division titles in 1992. In the ensuing 20 years, the Pirates haven’t had a single winning record, much less a sniff of the playoffs.

‘‘Andy Van Slyke was my favorite player — I remember him running around in center field and Barry Bonds hitting a lot of home runs,’’ Walker said. ‘‘Since ’92, there hasn’t been much to remember. I got tired of all the negativity, as a fan and as a player when I first got here. The last year, year-and-a-half has been a lot of fun, something special.’’

The Pirates head for Cincinnati this weekend after fortifying themselves with starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez (Houston), first baseman Gaby Sanchez (Miami) and outfielder Travis Snider (Toronto) for the final two months. General manager Neil Huntington, on the job since 2007, chose not to part with the young talent he would have had to surrender to add more.

“We’re trying to build a championship-level organization, not just end a losing streak,’’ he said.

Hurdle believes they are close.

‘‘We’re in Pittsburgh. We haven’t been good, and we have to prove ourselves — we know that,’’ he said. ‘‘But I like the way we’ve responded to the challenge. We’re growing up.’’

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