BRADENTON, Fla. - The road to the major leagues presents different challenges to different players, and Pirates pitchers Jared Hughes and Kyle McPherson are prime examples.
Hughes, now solidly entrenched in the back end of the Pirates' bullpen, spent parts of four seasons in Double-A with the Curve. McPherson, who is battling for a spot in the Bucs' starting rotation this spring, pitched for the short-season State College Spikes three different summers.
"There's definitely a sense of doubt that comes into your mind at times," Hughes said of his long tenure in Double-A. "You have to be able to go to the people that support you. Family and friends, those are the people who believe in you, and that's who you go to for support.
"They can help erase that doubt and give you confidence so you're able to keep going out there and giving your best," added Hughes, a fourth-round draft pick in 2006 out of Long Beach State.
Pitchers John Grabow and Mike Gonzalez, both of whom went on to lengthy big league careers, are the only other players besides Hughes to wear a Curve uniform four different seasons and still reach the majors. Grabow was in Altoona from 2000-2003, while Gonzalez was with the Curve in 1999 and then from 2001-03.
Hughes, who suited up for the Curve from 2008-2011, was both a starter and reliever in Double-A. Hughes had a 2-2 record and 4.94 ERA in six games (all starts) in 2008. He was 1-6, with a 3.88 ERA in 17 games (seven starts) in 2009. Primarily still a starter in 2010, Hughes went 12-8 (4.42 ERA) in 30 appearances, 23 of which were starts. He went 6-5 with a 3.28 ERA in 48 games (11 starts) between Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis in 2011. He was promoted to Indy on June 10 and was used exclusively in relief after that.
"Halfway through 2010, I went to the bullpen," Hughes noted, "and I was OK with that as long as I could help the team win."
And, they did win, taking the Eastern League pennant with playoff series wins over Harrisburg and Trenton.
"Going into the bullpen and having success was big for me," Hughes, a 6-foot-7 right-hander, said. "I finally realized the intensity it took to be successful."
Hughes has nothing but good memories about his time in Altoona.
"The fans were great, the people were great, and it was a great atmosphere," he said. "It's a terrific ballpark, too."
The 2010 season was special in more ways than one. Of course, there was the Eastern League championship, but appearances by Stephen Strasburg and Andy Pettitte added to Hughes' memories.
"I was on the radar gun in the stands for Strasburg," Hughes recalled of the Harrisburg pitcher's professional debut on an April Sunday afternoon at Blair County Ballpark. "His [Strasburg's] first pitch in pro ball was 100 [mph] on the gun.
"I was there for Pettitte's rehab with Trenton in the playoffs, too," Hughes said. "Chase d'Arnaud, I believe, hit the first pitch off him for a home run. That 2010 season was really special."
It also was the turning point for him.
"I was called into the office one day by [manager] Matt Walbeck and [pitching coach] Tom Filer, and they told me I was now a reliever and wanted to know how it made me feel," Hughes said. "I said I was OK with it. I just wanted to help the team.
"My catcher, Kris Watts, said to me later on in the bullpen that you never know what's going to happen," Hughes added. "He said we might not be in the game long and it was time to give it our all. Just go out and be as aggressive as possible and that was kind of a turning point for me.
"When I went to Altoona I was nowhere nearly as mature as when I left," Hughes added. "My coaches, teammates and the community all played a part in that."
Hughes and McPherson are different personalities in the clubhouse. Hughes is outgoing, smiling and talkative, while McPherson is quiet, more to himself and seldom strays from his locker area.
"It's easy to get discouraged," McPherson said of his extended time in State College. "Fact of the matter though is that it's not your fault. It's on management and what they think is best for you."
The Pirates' 14th-round pick in the 2007 draft, McPherson split the 2007 season between the Gulf Coast League Pirates and State College with a 4-3 record and 3.41 ERA in 15 games (13 starts). The big right-hander spent all of 2008 in State College, where he went 0-1 with a 2.28 ERA in 25 innings of relief and 1-2 with a 6.51 ERA in 27 innings and seven starts for the Spikes.
McPherson, 25, was born in Mobile, Ala., and was a position player in high school and also at the University of Mobile before turning pro and becoming a pitcher.
"I went on a drastic learning process to become a pitcher," he said, and it's taken him a few years to finally move up the ladder to the majors. "I'm finally in a routine now, and I just go out there every fifth day and do my best."
McPherson opened the 2009 season with low Class A West Virginia and went 5-2 (4.94 ERA) in 13 games (8 starts). He finished the season in State College, going 4-3 with a 2.99 ERA in 13 starts. He posted an impressive 2.19 ERA in his last six starts, and that started his climb up the ladder.
"They make you repeat levels once, twice, three times, and that's on them," McPherson said of the organization. "You just have to keep going out there and continue to perform. You just have to take care of the things you can handle."
McPherson won nine games at West Virginia in 2010 and started 2011 with high-A Bradenton and later was promoted to Altoona. A combined 12-6 record and 2.92 ERA earned him the organization's minor league pitcher of the year award. He led the system in strikeouts and was second in wins and ERA.
"Altoona was a great place to play," he recalled. "The fans were great and the ballpark, too."
After pitching at both Altoona and Indianapolis, he received his first major league call-up and appeared in 10 games with the Pirates late in 2012.
"For the most part, it's up to management to decide where each guy should be, either a starter or reliever, and you just go with it," McPherson said.