A Pirate fan's five years of captivity in a cellar

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Scared Hitless

5-7

I usually don’t pay a lot of attention to baseball schedules, other than when am I going to my next game and what team are we playing in the next series. Unlike football schedules, you know you are going to play your division a bunch of times, a handful of AL teams once, and everyone else in the NL once, home and away. There’s not that much mystery to it. It’s a long season of ups and downs. Because of this, I hadn’t really appreciated the difficulty of the Buccos April schedule until this week.

After a brief three-game series to open the season, the rest of April features 6 home games and 13 road games. The Buccos have just completed a rough West Coast swing against the division’s 3 best teams — no Padres or Rockies this time around. Oh yeah, they had three opening days: one at home, one in LA, and one in San Fran. That means facing their best pitchers each time. So far, the Pirates have faced nothing but the best teams in the NL, and some of the league’s best pitchers, including Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, 2o11 Cy Young-winner Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Daniel Hudson, and Ian Kennedy.

We’re two weeks into the 2012 campaign and it has been painfully obvious that the bats are silent.

I don’t mean that we are hitting in the low .200s; I mean we’ve got guys hitting below .100. In fact, the combined team batting average right now is .205. This is beyond embarrassing. Still, it is too early to panic. My philosophy is that hitting is streaky. It gets cold and it gets hot. Pitching, not so much. Sure, a pitcher can have a rough outing, but overall, good pitching stays good and bad pitching stays bad. So, I guess I’d rather see the Pirates pitching well and slumping at the plate than the reverse. But still, it’s gonna come around, right? If not, this could be a train wreck of a season.

We’ve got four starters who have been beyond horrible:

  • Rod Barajas (off-season free agent)  .074
  • Pedro Alvarez   .074  (2 for 27, but both hits were home runs)
  • Clint Barmes  (off-season free agent)  .111
  • Jose Tabata  .111

That’s half our starting lineup. Automatic outs, all of them. A few days ago, Neil Walker was on that list. Thankfully, he has started heating up. In his last four games, he’s gone 8 for 16 to raise his average to .244.

We are last in the National League in hits, runs, doubles, average, on-base pct., slugging pct., and total bases. Second to last in taking walks. I guess if you are an optimist, you could say that we are fortunate to be 5-7 at this point. It could be worse.

Staying in the optimist camp, there are a few Buccos who have been pulling their weight. Chief among them being Andrew McCutchen. Cutch is doing what superstars do. Currently, he’s hitting an even .400, including 2 doubles and 3 stolen bases. He only has 2 RBIs because he rarely comes to bat with men on base. Alex Presley is adequate at .277.  Casey McGehee has been a nice find, hitting a solid .290. Even Garrett Jones has shown some life recently, hitting .269. And how about my wife’s favorite Pirate, part-time catcher Michael McKenry, hitting .273 in limited play.

Also encouraging has been the pitching. Our team ERA is 2.80, 4th best in the NL. We have given up the fourth fewest walks. But continuing a trend from last year, our pitchers are last in the league in strikeouts. That means the other team puts that ball in play, which can come back to bite you at some point. But so far, the Pirates have pitched well enough to be above .500. It’s the hitting that has us chasing the pack.

Hey Pedro! Get your hat off your damn ears and start taking more batting practice!!

The hitting must come around. The schedule does us no favors. We come home to play the Cardinals before finally getting a break in the form of a visit from the Rockies. Then we go back on the road to Atlanta. Soon, however, May will be here, a month in which we have 18 home games and only 10 road games. May will tell the tale of whether or not this team can show some of the spark they showed last year. Or, whether this team is as good as they are ever going to get. That would be an ugly turn of events.

Closing that road trip with 2 wins was huge. After starting the trip 0-5, they were able to take 3 of the last 4 to return home with a little Mo! Now, we play the first-place Cardinals. Another big test.

All I can say is that these April showers better bring some friggin’ May flowers in the form of more hits.

Let’s go Bucs!

I’m baaaaaack!

2-1

We’re back for another exciting season of Bucco baseball. Since this blog continues to garner a scant bit of attention, I will focus most of my Pirate-centric thoughts here instead of on my main blog, Carpetbaggery. I’ll try to keep it going with a couple of short posts a week. Last year, the team’s woeful second half sucked dry my will to blog. I realize that my theme of a fan trapped in the cellar is no longer accurate, since the Pirates finished ahead of two other teams in the division. Nevertheless, until the Buccos finally reach that magically elusive .500 mark, I consider their fandom imprisoned and tortured by a cruel and sadistic maniac. Perhaps we escaped from the well, but, like Claire Starling, we are still floundering around blindly in the monster’s underground labyrinth. (Too much?)

The 2011 Pirates enjoyed a 15-game improvement, even if it didn’t always feel that way during a brutal 8-22 month of August. It turns out that my season prediction of 72-90 was right on the button last year. This year, my eyes aren’t quite so big. I’m calling for a modest 5-game improvement, to 77-85. Not sure if that will be enough progress to earn GM Neal Huntington a contract extension or not. I hope so, as long as the team seems to be going in the right direction.

This year, there are three players I see as key to the Pirates chances.

Pedro Alvarez must turn into at least a serviceable major league baseball player. Sure, first-round, 2nd pick overall, draft pick should probably turn into a perennial All-Star. You’d think so, but the baseball draft is not a sure thing. Let’s look at the last decade of 2nd overall picks:

  • 2000 – Adam Johnson, RHP, Twins (Out of baseball by 2004)
  • 2001 – Mark Prior, RHP, Cubs (Out of baseball by 2006)
  • 2002 – B. J. Upton, SS, Rays  (starter)
  • 2003 – Rickie Weeks, Brewers (starter)
  • 2004 – Justin Verlander, Tigers (dominant starter, All Star, future Hall of Famer)
  • 2005 – Alex Gordon, Royal (starter)
  • 2006 – Greg Reynolds, Rockies  (trying to make the Rangers)
  • 2007 – Mike Moustakas – Royals (starter)
  • 2008 – Pedro Alvarez – Pirates (starter)
  • 2009 – Dustin Ackley – Mariners (starter)
  • 2010 – Jameson Taillon – Pirates (AA)

There you go. A decade of 2nd overall picks, and there is only one superstar in the bunch, a number of average starters, and a couple of complete busts. So, it may not be fair to just assume that Pedro Alvarez should be a guaranteed version of Mike Schmidt. His huge bomb on Sunday shows that he has the power and bat speed. He’ll never be a .300 hitter, but if he can hit in the .270s or .280s and thump 25+ home runs and 80-90 RBIs, I’ll take it.

Neil Walker must continue to improve and become the Robin to Andrew McCutchen’s Batman. I wouldn’t mind seeing him improve his average, even if it detracts from his power. I don’t need my second baseman to be a clean-up hitter, even though that’s where the Pirates keep hitting him. He should be a .290 to .300 hitter who is among the league leaders in doubles each year.

Charlie Morton must step up to become a solid and dependable #3 starter. He can’t be the brittle china doll who collapses into a “Silkwood shower” whenever adversity strikes. This year’s rotation must be Burnett, Bedard, Morton, Karstens, and then, either McDonald or Correia. It’s a luxury to have six guys who can start. That means we don’t have to bring up a Brian Burres or Chris Jakubaskas in a pinch this year.

My bold prediction: Garrett Jones will continue to regress and be gone by the All-Star break, but Matt Hague and Casey McGehee will both emerge as power-hitting replacements.

Opening weekend was amazing. Somehow, without ever leading a game as a hitter was introduced, the Pirates took 2 of 3 from the 2011 NL best Phillies. We faced Halladay, Lee, and Worley, and escaped with a series victory. It wasn’t pretty, but it was scrappy and effective. I had pretty much given up hope when it was 4-1 Phillies in the 7th inning of Sunday’s game. But the Buccos didn’t quit. They scratched together hit after hit, run after run, rally after rally, and won the game. That showed some huge stones.

Now we must go out to play the three best teams in the West. That home run box in Phoenix was a house of horrors for us last year. LA was even worse. We were 2-5 there last year, although we took 2 of 3 in San Fran. I’m hoping for no worse than 4-5 on this trip before coming home to play the Cardinals.

There’s an extra playoff team this year. The National League is missing its three best hitters (Fielder, Pujols, Howard). We can be competitive. The Buccos must keep moving forward or I fear we’ll be starting all over again next year.

Off to LA.

 

 

Dog days of August

I’ve been here before. It’s the Dog Days of August. It’s hot. The excitement of a new season has turned into a day-to-day grind. This is the 20-mile mark of a marathon where you’ve run farther than you ever have before; you hurt like you never have before; and you’ve still got more than six miles to go! The cooler weather of a September pennant race seems like a lifetime away. These are not the days you triumph over; they are days that you must grit your teeth and push through it in order to survive.

Let’s not forget the fact that this has been an amazing season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. What began as a possible run at .500 somehow turned into a possible run for the division and the playoffs. Let’s not forget that a .500 record would be a 24-game improvement on last year’s record. Let’s not forget that this years Pirates are only 3 games away from equalling their win total for all of 2010.

Their current six-game losing streak has reflected a team that is depleted, tired, and, at times, over matched by superior pitching. (Or, even average pitching.) What’s the cause? It could be those two hot-weather losses in Atlanta that took thirty innings and involved a horrific, game-deciding umpire’s call. Perhaps the Buccos have had trouble shaking that off. Then they were destroyed by a machine called the Phillies. Facing Lee and Halladay after that Atlanta trip was a cruel joke. Since then, the hitting has gone further into a shell and even the pitching has begun to show wear and tear.

It sure feels as if the Pirates are on the edge of a cliff and a fall back to baseball reality and historic Pittsburgh baseball futility. I’ve come to the painful realization that our hitters are not in a slump. They just can’t hit. At least not this year. Lyle Overbay was a doubles machine and a stellar defensive first baseman, until this year. Last year, Neil Walker (.296), Andrew McCutchen (.286), and Jose Tabata (.299) were hitting the ball. Heck, even Lastings Milledge hit .277.

This year, only Walker is hitting .280 or above. (Actually, .280 exactly.) At this point in the season, hoping for some kind of hitting resurgence is starting to seem unrealistic. It could be that only the rest of an off season is going to allow them to turn things around. If that’s the case, many a Pirate hitter must be kicking themselves. These kinds of seasons don’t come along that often in a major career unless you are Chipper Jones.

Sure, the pitching has been, for lack of a better word, heroic. Pitching has put the Pirates where they are. But three of our starters–Karstens, Morton, and McDonald–have already reached their career highs for innings pitched in a season. At six and a half games back, the Pirates need to make a move now. You can’t make up that kind of distance in one month. Before August is through, the Pirates will face the Brewers and Cardinals seven more times each. That should decide things. In order to make a move, the Pirates cannot split those games. They must win four or five teams against both teams.

Of bigger concern, however, is a more drastic swoon. That a six-game losing streak will turn into a much more damaging slide. I’d hate to see them destroy all the good will and fan support they have built. Pittsburgh baseball fans are still a bit neurotic. Any hard fall off of the bandwagon is only going to increase their future skepticism.

In other words, I’m hoping that the fading playoff hopes don’t dissuade this team from pressing on and surpassing the .500 mark this year. They can’t loosen their grips now. This is a dangerous point of the season. I fear that this is point where we shake it off and continue a magical run, or we plummet off the cliff of unrealistic expectations. The next two weeks will tell the tale.

The Call

Jim Joyce has to be smiling this morning. Just a year after blowing a 9th inning call that ruined Armando Galarraga’s perfect game, Joyce’s horrendous call has been supplanted as the worst call ever in baseball. Last night–actually 2 a.m. this morning–Jerry Meals made an inexplicable safe call after Julio Lugo had been tagged out a good three feet from home plate. No one was more surprised than Lugo himself, probably the greatest evidence that Meals had indeed blown the call. After the game, Meals admitted that he “might have” missed the call but thought that catcher McKenry had “oléd” the runner. In most cases, when the throw beats a runner by that much and the fielder goes down to make the tag, the umpire gives the defense the benefit of the doubt without “thinking” that the tag “might have” been missed…especially in the 19th inning of an incredible game where you don’t want things decided by a questionable call.

Hey, in the heat of the moment, Meals made a reaction. He choked. And umpires don’t take those back. They stick with the call, even if they know in their minds that it was wrong. That’s just baseball.

The loss isn’t that big a deal, especially after the Buccos got a win in game 1 of the 4-game series. What is more important is how they react going forward.

They still have 2 more games in Atlanta and then, 3 in Philly. After a 7-game respite with the Cubs and Padres, they then face the Giants and Brewers. This will be a tough stretch. The Mariners just went through a similar tough stretch. After achieving a surprising 43-43 record, they lost 17 straight and now find themselves with a season in shambles and a 43-60 record. Things can fall apart that fast.

There’s no way the Pirates fall apart like that. The pitching won’t let them. Clint Hurdle won’t let them. But a six-game losing streak would not be out of the realm of possibility. I know, that’s a very dark, doom-and-gloom perspective. That’s the old Cub fan in me coming out. All I’m saying is that this is a key week, especially with the trading deadline on Sunday.

It's time to put Overbay on eBay

Neal Huntington got a stark picture of what is wrong with this team during the recent Cardinals series. While dropping 2 of 3, the Pirates and Cardinals seems similar in many ways. Both have great pitching, adequate defense, and scrappy young players. The big difference was that during the 3-game series, the Cardinals wrapped 6 home runs, driving in 9 runs. The Pirates hit zero home runs, driving in zero runs. It’s hard to beat good teams with singles when they are hitting 2-run homers. If the Pirates are going to contend, they need a bat. Hunter Pence is probably too expensive, especially if the Astros continue to ask for 3 prospects like Presley, Brad Lincoln, and Bryan Morris in return. Jason Giambi just got injured. Carlos Pena is only a slight upgrade on Lyle Overbay. Teams just aren’t going to give up corner power hitters for nothing. But first base and right field are a huge problem. It’s not good that the Buccos are getting NOTHING out these two positions offensively. Overbay was 1 for 8 last night and left four men on base. He’s hitting in the .230s with men in scoring position. My wife was shocked that he was not traded between the 11th and 13th innings last night.

So, Huntington has his job cut out for him, as do the Pirates. They must use “the call” as motivation. They must get pissed and take it out on someone. They can’t lose focus now. These are the days that make or break a season. Hey, but isn’t it great that Pirates’ fans can talk like this at the trade deadline? This is why I love baseball.

at the big-boy table

The Pirates in a battle for first place. Several games over .500. Not even the most optimistic of Pirate observers saw this coming. A part of me thinks, Oh, no. It’s too early. This wasn’t supposed to be the year. It’s supposed to be next year or the year after!

Indeed, the Bucco brass has some tough decisions to make. You see, there are things that winning baseball teams do that the Pirates haven’t done in a very long time.

Buyers

One thing winning teams do is they go out looking for pieces to add to their team for the second half. To do this, they often need to sacrifice a prospect in the minor league system. That, you see, is how many of the players we have now got here. We sold off Jack Wilson, Xavier Nady, and Jason Bay to teams in contention and got a crap-load of minor leaguers in return. Now, the Pirates are buyers. One mistake that fans of winning teams often do is fall in love with their prospects. They are too afraid to trade the promise of the future for the surety of today. As fans, we have to get over that. Saying that, I’d rather not trade a Tony Sanchez for some a two-month rent-a-veteran who becomes a free agent in November. It’s a gamble. If they come in like Rick Sutcliffe when he led the ’84 Cubs to the playoffs, it may be worth losing a prospect or two. But if we add a veteran who hits no better than Lyle Overbay, that would be a disaster. The name one hears is Mets’ outfielder Carlos Beltran. He’s hitting a ton this year after several years with injury problems. I’m much less excited about names like Josh Willingham, Carlos Pena, and Connor Jackson. However, the Bucs could probably get Pena by assuming his $9 million salary without giving up any minor leaguers. Decisions, decisions, decisions.

We Can’t Sign Everybody

Pirates’ fans have berated team management for years about letting players go as soon as they got good and demanded decent money. And they’re right. But don’t confuse that with the way small market teams need to do business. Small market teams need to pick the players they want to resign and let the rest go as strategically as possible. Some will be traded, while others will simply finish up their contract and walk away. Tampa had to say good-bye to Carl Crawford. They were never going to sign him. St. Louis and Milwaukee may have to do the same next year with Pujols and Fielder. Even the Phillies, a rather large market team, had to pick and choose. They signed Ryan Howard to a huge extension and let Jayson Werth walk to a division rival (a good choice so far since Werth isn’t working out too well for the Nationals for the money he is being paid). Thus, the Pirates seem to be pursuing Andrew McCutchen for an extension. In doing so, they may choose not to do so with Alvarez, Tabata, or even the Pittsburgh Kid, Neal Walker. Unless you are the Red Sox or Yankees, you can’t resign everybody. Teams tend to get especially ruthless with pitchers. Sure, Paul Maholm is having a good year. But do you really want to tie up five or six future years of big money on him? Three years from now, that could be an albatross around the team’s neck. See the Cubs for examples of huge salaried players taking up a dysfunctional and poorly structured lineup.

Avoiding the Second Half Slump

In past years, the Pirates have been pretty good at winning some games late during a bad season. Just enough to create some hope for next year. This year, a lot of your Pirate players are going to hit the mark where they have played more innings in a season than ever before. Some guys will get injuries–hopefully minor ones and season enders. It will be interesting to see how the team handles the dog days of August when fatigue and pain are involved. They’ve already raided the minor leagues for help. How often will they be able to go that well?

Playing the Contenders

The Pirates have gotten fat by playing some poor competition. We’ve spent the past month playing the Astros, Mets, Cubs, Nationals, Blue Jays, and Orioles. Yes, we also took 2 of 3 from the Red Sox, no small feat. But we’ve done well against poor teams, which good teams are supposed to do. The next month will be much different as we play the Cardinals, Braves, Phillies, Giants, and Brewers. Expectation wise, I feel that we need to split against these good teams and as long as we keep taking 2 or 3 from the poor ones. Anything more is gravy.

National Attention

This week, it was announced that two upcoming Bucco games will be on a national stage. On Monday, ESPN will telecast the game in Atlanta across the country. Then, Fox is selecting the August 13 game in Milwaukee for their Saturday broadcast. It would be nice to get a PNC game on national TV, but that can’t be far off.

Enjoy the ride, Bucco fans, but be prepared for some bumps in the road.

New blood!

Josh Harrison

I’ve been thinking that it can only be a matter of time before the Pirates start promoting some Triple-A hitters. I mean, beside Chris Snyder, who doesn’t even have 100 at bats yet, Neil Walker is leading all Pirate hitters with a .265 average. I would assume that most competent minor league hitters could manage to hit .240 in the big leagues. They’d fit right in with this team. At the very least, we might be spared the pain of watching the antics of Brandon Wood (.183) and Xavier Paul (.231).

With Doumit and Pearce going on the DL, the Buccos rolled the dice by bringing up catcher Dusty Brown and versatile infielder Josh Harrison from Indianapolis. The two made themselves useful in their first game by providing 3 of the team’s 7 hits, 2 of the 5 runs, and an RBI to boot. In fact, their performance might have scared Brandon Wood into producing a 2-run bloop single in the ninth.

Dusty Brown

With Doumit out at least a month with a broken foot, if Harrison can hit .250 at least (and that’s saying a lot!), then, as soon as Alvarez is healthy, I figure that Brandon Wood will be wearing an Indianapolis jersey, if he’s not released outright.

But how about Josh Harrison! After getting his first major league hit in third inning, he came to the plate in the eighth with the Buccos down a run, two outs, and two men on base against knuckleballer R. A. Dickey, who had handcuffed Pirate hitters all night. He laced a single into right field, scoring both runners and giving the Pirates the lead. That’s coming through in the clutch in your first major league game. That’s big time.

Welcome to Pittsburgh, Josh and Dusty. If you can just hit .270, you’ll both own this town.

Let’s go streaking!


The Pirates are streaking to Wrigley Field this weekend. And streaks have been the thing the past two weeks. After suffering a 6-game losing streak, including an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Brewers, the Buccos won four straight before dropping three more in a row. Over the past 7 games, Pirates hitters have only managed a .213 batting average while the pitchers have had an astounding 1.80 ERA. In fact, as I’ve bemoaned all year, the Pirates continue to sink or swim with their hitting. In all of 2011, Pirate hitters bat .275 in their victories and .199 in their losses. If there is any silver lining to be had, I guess it could be that the hitters raised their team batting average from .230 in April to .243 in May. We can only hope that trend continues. I mean it, it seems to be our only hope for improved play. One certainly can’t ask any more of this pitching staff.

We’ve still got another two months to go, but it will be interesting to determine how the Pirates are situated come the trade deadline. Will they be sellers? Will Maholm, Hanrahan, and Doumit be moved to a contender, as was speculated at the beginning of the year? Or will the Pirates hold on to their hand? I can’t imagine Huntington actually being a buyer. I don’t see the Pirates trading any of their prized prospects for short-term help the way playoff teams do. Maybe if they were within a game or two of the division lead, but does anyone think that will be the case in late July?

Let’s face it, all most Pirate fans are dreaming about these days is a season over the .500 mark. And nobody trades away the future to be .500.

Now, it’s off to Chicago for three games in Wrigley Field… otherwise known as PNC West. As snakebitten as they have been in Milwaukee, just 90 miles to the south, the Buccos have been the 1927 Yankees. Okay, not quite, but over the past two years, the Pirates have been an un-Bucco-like 12-7 against the Cubs. Then, 3 games in Citi Field with the Mets. If we can manage to go 4-2 on this trip, we’d come home to PNC 26-28 on the year. At this point, I’d take it. This feels like one of those turning point trips that can make or break the season.

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