PITTSBURGH -- In the dusk of the season, Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle couldn't help thinking back to the dawn. As the club was approaching Opening Day, the recurring theme was the harsh first-month schedule it faced.

You might remember the incessant talk: an almost non-stop gauntlet of teams coming off winning seasons, many of which had been in the 2011 playoffs.

"Right out of the gate: 'The toughest 40 games in baseball.' Then we lose A.J. [Burnett] right out of the chute," Hurdle recalled. "And we don't hit for two months. But that didn't turn out to be the toughest 40, did it?"

Not even close. Hurdle's implication that the last 40 were much tougher was spot-on.

Even with Burnett delayed until game No. 14 by his Spring Training bunting mishap, the Pirates navigated the First 40 with a record of 19-21.

The Final 40 had the Bucs playing arguably MLB's weakest closing schedule, including 17 games against three of the National League's most unsuccessful teams (Cubs, Astros, Mets). With four games to go, the Pirates are 10-26 in the Final 40.

"We found a way to fight through a lot of things," said Hurdle, referring to the First 40 tenacity that fueled midseason contention. "We didn't fight through them all. To be a champion, you've got to fight through everything for six months."

Family commemorates Clemente's 3,000th hit

PITTSBURGH -- Everywhere else, Roberto Clemente may be just an award. But here, Roberto Clemente is a person, a deeply revered part of the history of both the city and of its baseball team.

On Sunday, the 40th anniversary of The Great One's 3,000th base hit in Three Rivers Stadium, members of his family joined a brief pregame commemoration and re-enactment of the iconic moment.

"It is hard to believe it has been 40 years," Vera Clemente, the Hall of Fame ballplayer's widow, said in a quiet moment before strolling out to the middle of PNC Park. "Time just flies by so fast.

"Roberto had such a deep love for Pittsburgh. He would always tell me, 'If I ever got traded, I would just retire. I never want to play anywhere else but Pittsburgh.'"

Joining Vera Clemente for the occasion were sons Roberto Jr., Luis and Enrique, along with Steve Blass, the current broadcaster and former pitching great who was a longtime teammate of Roberto.

They congregated behind second base -- the spot where Clemente pulled up following hit No. 3,000, a leadoff double in the fifth inning off the Mets' Jon Matlack.

Joining them by jogging out of right field was Modesto Lacen, the actor who portrayed Clemente in the award-winning musical, "The Roberto Clemente Story."

Lacen stepped atop the second-base bag and recreated the Clemente cap-tip-and-wave that has become an enduring image.

Hurdle encourages youth to play winter ball

PITTSBURGH -- If the players take their manager's advice, quite a few Pirates will be active in Latin America's Winter Leagues this offseason. In the customary exit interviews, Clint Hurdle has not been shy about steering several younger players in that direction, believing the experience can help them grow both as athletes and as men.

"There are six to 10 guys I've talked to point-blank about playing winter ball," Hurdle said. "I've been blunt about how that can help them.

"More at-bats, especially for some guys challenged by spin and soft stuff. You want to see changeups and breaking balls? Go to Mexico. I'm an absolute believer in the benefits."

Hurdle declined to identify the players getting the winter ball card, for sound reason: A year ago, there was open talk about wanting Pedro Alvarez to play in the Dominican League; when he chose not to, it grew into a controversy.

Worth noting

• In addition to getting some props for his six shutout innings on Saturday night. Kyle McPherson might have earned a nickname: Some "McFear" signs were spotted in the PNC Park seats. "I've heard that a few times. Might have to stick," said the rookie righty.

• Andrew McCutchen (31 homers, 20 steals) is MLB's second 30-20 player of the season (Ryan Braun) and the fourth in Pirates history, following Dave Parker in 1978, Barry Bonds three-peating in 1990-92, and Jason Bay in 2005.

• Clint Barmes has spent more time batting eighth, or just ahead of the pitcher, than anywhere else in the lineup -- but on Saturday he was given his first intentional walk of the season.

Last word

"I've got a quiet place in my backyard. Where I can go and unburden myself. Where the deer and I talk. We've had some great talks the last six weeks."
-- Hurdle, on dealing in solitude with a season slipping away