This is how Andrew McCutchen watched at least one of the MLB playoff games at home on television last fall: He stood up, assumed his batting stance, and timed his swing to the pitches as he saw them on the screen. McCutchen later shared this story with his agent, Steve Hammond, who could only laugh.

"I was like, 'Are you kidding me?'" Hammond told me over the phone last week. "He couldn't get back quick enough. And I think the next-best thing, closest to being out there, was to sort of stand up and watch and work on things."

This was what it meant to be a Pittsburgh Pirate less than a year ago: a real-life major leaguer, stuck dreaming about the playoffs like a kid with a Wiffle bat in the basement. McCutchen had made his first All-Star Game appearance last season, but he had a rotten second half, hitting .216/.330/.392 after going .291/.390/.505 in the first half. His production pretty much mirrored that of the Pirates, who were 53-47 and in first place on July 19, only to go 19-43 the rest of the way.

In March, though, the Pirates put their trust in that first half, inking McCutchen to a six-year, $51.5 million contract extension. It was a sharp move, making a commitment to a promising young centerfielder while he was securely under franchise control, so he could be the fulcrum of the team for the foreseeable future. It was the kind of move the Pirates haven't often made in the 20 years since their last winning season.