Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Tuesday Pirates Rant™ - 162-0 Baby!!!

Fresh off of a come-from-behind, extra-inning 4-2 win over the Astros in Minute Maid Park—where the Pirates now have an all-time record of 12-42—I’m going to say as few bad things as possible. It was a great way to start off the season, so it’s positivity time!!


* Zach Duke pitched a pretty strong game despite the fact that he had 0 K’s. He relied on his defense to get him through a couple of tough stretches, and while last year that would have been a recipe for disaster, the D came through yesterday.

* Down 2-0 in the 8th, OF Nate McLouth, who showed next to nothing in Spring Training, hit a pinch-hit solo homerun. Down 2-1 with 2 outs in the 9th, Xavier Nady hit another solo HR to tie the game. At 2-2 in the top of the 10th, Jason Bay, who had looked pretty bad at the plate through the first 9 innings, hit 2-run, game-winning HR. Not a lot of offense, but that’s pretty much the definition of “came through when it counted.”

* The bullpen looked great. Rookie Jonah Bayliss was trusted to get a couple of outs in the 8th, and he came through. Matt Capps cruised through the 9th. New closer Salomon Torres, who is renowned for struggling mightily in April and May before becoming one of the best relievers in baseball in August and September, cruised through his first save opportunity with a 1-2-3 10th inning.

* The defense looked great. Who knows how long this will last, but much-maligned Jose Castillo—who was considered a great defender with lots of offensive potential before a disastrous 2006 season which saw him gain about 80 pounds, lose his defensive range, make a ton of errors, regress at the plate, and lose his starting job until Freddy Sanchez had to start the season on the DL—made a series of great defensive plays. New 3B Jose Bautista and 1B Adam LaRoche handled the corners well, and CF Chris Duffy nailed a guy at home plate to help avoid what could have been a big inning.

* Chris Duffy led off the season with a walk!! Duffy’s known for having tons of speed but absolutely no patience at the plate—a deadly trait for a leadoff hitter—so the simple act of taking some pitches and walking to first base was tremendously encouraging, even if he didn’t end up scoring.


* Some of the happiness of an Opening Day win wore off when I realized that the Pirates’ 1-0 record was their first winning record since...May 29, 2004. Think about that. Almost three years since the Pirates were even 1 game over .500. Good god.

* Adam “Savior” LaRoche went 0-5 with 4 K’s. Ouch. The Pirates REALLY need him to provide an offensive threat. Jason Bay batted ahead of him and actually saw a bunch of strikes, unlike the entire 2006 season. If opposing pitchers can’t pitch around Bay because LaRoche is on-deck, Bay will have a monstrous season. Of course, Jim Tracy is still the manager, and he will likely move Bay to the 5-hole—protected by catcher Ronny Paulino, who also went 0-for-5 yesterday—when Sanchez is off the DL, which is just an awful idea and kills the “your best hitter bats third” principle, so nevermind.

* After righties Xavier Nady and Jose Bautista crushed Houston closer Brad Lidge in the 9th inning (and righty Jose Castillo walked, just about as big a surprise as Duffy walking), Jim Tracy had to send a pinch hitter to the plate because the pitcher’s spot was up. Did he send righty power-hitter Brad Eldred, who hit about 19 HR’s in the spring, to the plate? No, he went with 28-year old rookie (and lefty) Don Kelly, who admittedly had a decent at-bat before popping out harmlessly to the shortstop. Tracy is an “old school” guy with “old school” principles. You bat lefty-vs-righty no matter what, even when statistics and the present tense suggest otherwise. His in-game skills are completely unimpressive to me, and his habit of taking complete credit for anything good that happens and basically blaming the players for the bad stuff gets more and more annoying (“I've talked about building blocks, about our players getting better, about believing in each other. ... My goodness, did you see that?”), but he seems to be a decent motivator, so I’ll try my best to cut him some slack. For now. But when Sanchez comes back and the Pirates’ best hitter gets sent to the 5th spot in the order—and therefore loses plate appearances for no good reason—I’ll start to get a bit pissy.

* What happens when the bullpen and the defense aren't fantastic?

Bottom line for this season: GM Dave Littlefield still sucks (there is officially 1 prospect at AAA, 2 at AA, and I’m pretty sure 0-1 at A+), and I’m completely unimpressed with Jim Tracy. However, this could be a team with strong, young pitching (acquired mostly by the previous GM), a possibly-solid bullpen, an improved defense, and (by default) an improved offense. If the team overachieves this year (which is at least 1% feasible being that the NL Central will likely be horrid), I’m totally on-board. The 83-79 success of the 2003 Royals completely set the organization back about 5 years—they got extremely lucky with runners in scoring position and won a ton of 1-run games, and the rash of good luck made their bad GM think he was pretty competent, and he got to stay on another 2.5 years despite not actually being a good GM. I could see the same sort of thing happening in Pittsburgh, and that really wouldn’t be good down the line, but you know what? I can’t intentionally root against Pittsburgh simply because I want the GM to get fired. Just like I couldn’t root against Mizzou in basketball even when it was obvious that Quin Snyder was going to have to leave before the program could start looking up. I won’t be heartbroken if/when the Pirates start to fall apart, but if they choose to play good baseball for a few months, I’m all for it. But that's getting ahead of the game, considering they're all of 1-0.


There were numerous live-blogs of last night’s game. Live blogs are, sadly, always more entertaining when the Pirates are playing terribly, so these aren’t amazingly fun reads, but...I think that’s a fair tradeoff.

UPDATE, 9:52pm: Once again, the Bucs were down 2-1 in the 8th, and once again, they came back and won, this time 3-2. Starter Ian Snell struck out 11 in just 6 innings, Xavier Nady hit another HR, and the bullpen held up again. Well done. They are two games over .500 for the first time since 4/18/2004, when they were 7-5. Wow. When's the last time they were three games over .500? 4/12/2003, when they were 7-4. Yeah, that one might be too much to ask.