What a ride!

One of the songs that they play at PNC Park this year when introducing the Pirate lineup is “Roller Coaster.”  You know the one, with the really high-pitched chorus and the really funky beat.  Well, here’s hoping they played it for all three games against the Brewers earlier this week, because it would be the perfect summation of the series.

I’m not kidding — by the time last night rolled around and the Pirates boarded their plane for Arizona, I was emotionally exhausted by all that had transpired in the previous three games.  In fact, these emotions were so strong that I am going to withhold any sort of intense statistical analysis of the series, and instead (at the risk of being too girly) recount my feelings during it. 

Here we go!

Disgust (at seeing that it was the Brewers coming in to town)

Fear (at the prospect of the Pirates’ losing streak against the Brewers stretching to 18 games)

Disappointment (at the rain delay that delayed the start of Monday night’s game by more than two hours)

Enjoyment (at Rocco’s rain delay broadcast, in which he was on the air, non-stop, for close to 90 minutes)

Disgust (at seeing the actual Brewers take the field)

Joy (at seeing the Pirates post 6 quick runs off of Brewers’ starter Mike Burns)

Even More Joy (at seeing yet another Garrett Jones home run)

Disgust (at having to watch the Brewers)

Exhaustion (at falling asleep in the top of the eighth inning)

Confusion (at waking up in the bottom of the eighth inning to see a shoving match taking place around home plate)

Anger (at realizing what had precipitated the shoving match taking place around home plate)

Glee (at waking up the next morning and realizing the Pirates had won the game, 8-5)

Disgust (at reading some of the Brewers’ childish comments about the shoving match in the paper)

Optimism (at the potential for the Bucs to make it two in a row against the Brewers on Tuesday night)

Disgust (at having to watch the Brewers, again)

Frustration bordering on anger (at the Pirates’ complete inability to score runs on Tuesday night)

Disgust (at listening to Tim Neverett describe the Brewers’ stupid shirt-untucking ritual as they celebrated their 2-0 win)

Glee (at listening to and putting my two cents’ into Tuesday night’s discussion du jour on Extra Innings; namely, “How much do you hate the Brewers?”)

But none of that — I say none of that — was preparation for the roller coaster of yesterday’s game.  To fully understand the ride, it’s necessary to bring in some primary sources; namely, the email conversation that transpired between TBMLR Kev (who was following the Phillies’ game at the same time) and me.  Oh, and we sometimes speak in our own language, so explanatory italics are included where necessary.

—–

After some talk about the Adam LaRoche trade (which is covered in another post, if you scroll down a bit), we got into our respective games.

Kev: And Garrett Jones!  My goodness.  He’s as hot as the Phillies.  We should trade for him.  Put him at catcher.

Me (7 minutes later): Not gonna happen.  He’s our everyday 1B now.  TRB!  That’s right, baby!  I am so overly excited…Pirates have scored all of their runs on HRs.  Doumit with 2, Cutch with 1, and Jones (natch) naturally with 1.  Maybe Cutch and “GFJ” (as Rocco has dubbed him) will tie for ROY Rookie of the Year.  TRB!

Kev (13 minutes later): They’ll both tie for 2nd behind Happ.

Me (10 minutes later: WHY IS MAHOLM SERVING IT UP????  AND TO BRAUN OF ALL PEOPLE (he had, at this point, just cleared the bases with a hit)…THIS IS REMINISCENT OF THE GAME AGAINST THE METS — GET A FIVE-RUN LEAD, THEN SQUANDER IT.  IT’S MY OWN FAULT FOR BEING SO CONFIDENT AND FANCY-PANTS.  SORRY FOR ALL THE CAPS, BUT I AM MURGHHHH extremely angry!

Kev (1 minute later): DOORS FELL OFF AT THE SAME TIME IN PHILADELPHIA.  MOYER LOADED THE BASES WITH NOBODY OUT.  ALL IN ALL AFTER AN ERROR THE CUBS GOT 4.  4-0 BOTTOM 4.  DOORS = OFF.

Me (2 minutes later): Doors now officially off in PGH as well — McGehee with the two-run job.  Just for the record (in case you were wondering), I hate the Brewers!

Kev (3 minutes later): Didn’t know you didn’t care for that team.  Phils go 1, 2, 3 in the 4th.  Ugh.

Me (10 minutes later): That’s the worst, when you can’t even make some noise after you serve it up.  Buccos are about to do the same in the 5th.  Scratch that.  LaRoche (the only one left now) doubles in Delwyn Young.  Good.  Still need one more.

Kev (2 minutes later): Moyer just gave up another run.  5-0.

Me (7 minutes later): Ouch.  Hanrahan’s in the game.  This means trouble.

Kev (7 minutes later): Well that may have been our shot.  Bases chucked nobody out.  Only got 1.  Not soooo gooood.

Me (18 minutes later): Who’s pitching for the Petsies Cubs today?  It’s not Z is it?  My appleols apologies to Hanrahan so far — very, very impressive.  (Knock on wooden peg-leg.)

Kev (5 minutes later): Zambrano.  We’re not getting his pitch count high enough.  5-3 now.  Pete Happy Pedro Feliz with a 2-RBI single.  Uncle Charley Charlie Manuel got tossed.  Top 7.  Ryan The Riot Ryan Theriot is up.

Me (8 minutes later): SEBBIN!  Basically, gosh darn it!  Jeff Salazar GIDPs to end the threat in the bottom of the seventh.  Maybe that was in honor of the dearly departed Adam LaRoche.  7-7, top 8.  I lied.  In the time it took me to answer that phone call, Johnny Grabs set them down on 8 pitches.  That’s what I’m talking about!  Momentum still swinging our way.  But something must be done, post-haste.

Kev (14 minutes later): Saw you stranded two in the 8th.  Not good.  Doors off again in Philly.  Cubs got three more in the 7th.  Durbin decided to walk 167 people.  Ugh.  8-3 now.  Not looking good.

Me (3 minutes later): Yeah, I’ll tell you what — GFJ is going to throw his back out from singlehandedly carrying the offense.  2 2Bs, 1 HR, 1 BB on the day.  Matty C in the game, despite Grabow only throwing 8 pitches in the 8th.  I’m starting to have a bad feeling about this.

—–

Unfortunately, that bad feeling seemed on the verge of coming to fruition, when in the top of the 9th, Capps served up a triple to Mike Cameron (or, as I like to call him, Mr. HGH) with only one out.  Emotion at that time: dejection.

But all was not lost!  Incredibly, Ryan Braun and Casey McGehee struck out swinging, which, of course, left Cameron stranded at third.  Emotion at that time: excitement mingled with sheer disbelief.

And then, moments later, I started a whole new email to Kev.  The subject line: “Honestly.  I am sorry that you are losing.  But…”

And in the biggest font I could find, the body of the email went a little something like this: “YESSSSSS!  BRANDON MOSS WALKS IT OFF.”  Emotion at that time: elation.

Whew!  I need a nap.  (Or a tranquilizer.)

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And another thing…

I’m pretty much sick and tired of hearing FSN’s Final Score and ESPN’s Baseball Tonight rip the Pirates for the LaRoche trade.  In the matter of a few hours last night, I was privy to the following nuggets from the national media, which seems to enjoy completely ignoring the Pirates except when the opportunity presents itself (or is created by the anchors) to criticize them.

(while showing John Russell pulling LaRoche out of the dugout in the middle of yesterday’s game): “Good news, Adam, you’ve been traded to a playoff contender!”

(while going to a commercial break): “And when we come back, we’ll examine — is there anything good about staying a Pittsburgh Pirate?”

(while introducing Pirates-Brewers highlights): “You know, they’ve shown a lot of heart to keep coming out and winning some ballgames, even as their clubhouse has so much turnover and their team has no direction.”

(while showing said highlights): “Oops, Ryan Doumit homered.  He’ll be the next to get traded.  Oops, Brandon Moss homered.  He’ll be the next to get traded.”

That’s right — instead of giving actual, relevant commentary on one of the Pirates’ most exciting and satisfying wins of the years, these stupid talking heads were making fun of the Buccos, and on what grounds?

I mean, we all know that I love the Pirates as much as anyone, but have you seen their farm system?  Did you see it at this time last year?  The Pirates are not just giving up players for the sake of it.  There is a very clear plan in mind, and that plan involves — to borrow the phrase Rocco has used many times over — infusing the system with young talent, not hanging on to guys who are getting up there and whose best years may be behind them.

Another thing I resented is the implication that Neal Huntington is making these trades willy-nilly, just throwing darts at the lineup card to determine who is the next to go.  He is not going to trade Ryan Doumit or Brandon Moss because they hit a home run or had a good game.  Just like he didn’t trade Adam LaRoche, Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Nyjer Morgan, or Nate McLouth for no reason, or for just one reason.  Each of these decisions is carefully thought-out, and the intimation that the Pirates’ front office is filled with buffoons made me wonder if these silly national anchors wouldn’t be better served for their cheap laughs by looking in a mirror.

As Adam packs his bags, I scratch my head…

Things could have been a lot worse yesterday, around noon, when one of my co-workers came over to my desk, looking somber, and simply asked, “Did you hear the news?  Are you OK?”

My heart sank.  I dared to ask the question, “Did they trade Jack?”

“No.”

“Freddy?”

“No…I’m not even sure if you like this guy.  He strikes out too much for me.”

And I knew, in that moment.

“Adam LaRoche?!”

My co-worker nodded, at which point my incredulity reached a fevered pitch.  How in the world had Neal Huntington wrangled two prospects — and from a respected Red Sox organization, no less — in exchange for the man Pittsburgh sports fans had derisively taken to calling, “LaChoke”?  How had Huntington managed to get anyone in return?  Had he pulled the wool over Boston GM Theo Epstein’s eyes?  Had he duped the entire Red Sox front office?  Or maybe, just maybe, did Boston see in Adam LaRoche what the fans in Pittsburgh never took the time to?

I’ll admit to not having much of an opinion on Adam LaRoche when he was here.  Yes, I would groan when I saw he was coming up to bat in a key situation, and yes, his name would be the one most often uttered in frustration while watching the game on TV (it happened as recently as Tuesday night, in fact, when I also punched the sofa cushion loudly enough to wake one of my cats from a sound sleep).  But I never had the kind of honest-to-goodness hatred that a lot of Pirates fans seemed to feel for LaRoche.

So what was it about him, exactly?  And what made things go so terribly wrong?  If you were living in Pittsburgh in early 2007, you remember the excitement that came when the Bucs acquired LaRoche.  You remember the ovations that greeted him at PirateFest, and the mantle of “franchise savior” that was bestowed upon him, making him the latest in a long line of Pirates to merit such a distinction.  Plans were made for his bobblehead night (June 2, 2007), and given the short left-field porch at PNC Park and LaRoche’s undeniably gorgeous swing, surely visions of 40 home run seasons (a rarity in these parts) danced through Pirate fans’ heads.  The most optimistic among us looked to his time in a winning Braves’ organization as evidence that he would be a big help when the Pirates made their long-awaited playoff run.

But then the 2007 season started, and LaRoche got off to one of his abyssmally slow starts, and the numbers tailed off considerably from those compiled in 2006 in Atlanta.

…But did they, really?  I just hopped over to baseball-reference.com to get some numerical evidence, and it’s not nearly as salient as everyone’s hatred of LaRoche might suggest.  In 2006, he hit 32 home runs and drove in 90.  In 2007, the numbers were 21 and 88; in 2008, 25 and 85.  Granted, he was struggling quite a bit this year (his .247 average and .770 OPS are about all you need to come to that conclusion), but was his stint in Pittsburgh really as bad as everyone would like to believe?

I think the case of Adam LaRoche comes — as is so often the case in baseball — down to the intangibles.  Because let’s face it, for every RBI he had, there were a half dozen opportunities where he didn’t get the job done.  For every home run he had, there were two or three strikeouts, or a rally-killing GIDP (ahem last Sunday ahem).  The more clutch the situation, it seemed, the more LaRoche fell short.

But my question to you, dear reader, is, was it really all his fault?  After all, “savior of the franchise” is a lot of pressure to put on somebody, particularly somebody with his makeup.  Obviously, he is a Major League ballplayer, but the tools of an Andrew McCutchen or a Pedro Alvarez (the latest two to carry the “savior” burden) are simply not there.  McCutchen seems, to this point, capable of living up to the hype.  In fact, he seems to enjoy it.  LaRoche?  Well, he was, admittedly, happier perched out in the frozen fields of Kansas during an offseason hunt than bearing the weight of thousands of fans’ expectations, made all the more unbearable, in fact, by sixteen years of losing.

And that’s the other thing, too, that I think was a problem during LaRoche’s stint in Pittsburgh.  Somebody pointed this out the other day on sports talk radio, and I think it’s a good point.  Adam’s personality doesn’t gel with that of Pittsburgh.  He’s laid-back and low-energy (which is not to be read as low-passion).  He doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve.  Pittsburghers?  We’re gritty and hard-nosed.  We go full bore into everything.  We not only wear our hearts on our sleeves; we dress our babies in black and gold onesies and wear T-shirts declaring, “If you ain’t a Steeler fan, you ain’t ****”.  We show our passion, and expect our athletes to do the same.

But I don’t want that if it means a guy has to be someone he’s not.  LaRoche obviously tried his best while he was here, and although I’m not sorry to see him go, my opinion on the subject really has nothing to do with sentiment against him.  It’s more focused on what his departure means for the rest of the Pirates’ team, which, it seems to me, is getting thatclose to being all done with their wheeling and dealing.  The remainder of his $7 million salary?  I’m hoping the Pirates split that up and add it to their offers to Freddy and Jack.  The playing time at first base?  I’m hoping it goes to Garrett Jones, with Brandon Moss and Delwyn Young ending their platoon and becoming the everyday starting corner outfielders.  I’m starting to think we just might have something here.

So I agree with what Rocco said yesterday in recounting the trade — let’s not dance on Adam LaRoche’s grave.  I think we can all agree that his time in Pittsburgh didn’t work out the way anyone anticipated.  But that’s the way life goes sometimes.  We may never know exactly why Adam LaRoche and the Pirates weren’t a good fit, but it was clearly time for both parties to move on.  And not only do I feel like the Pirates are a better team today than they were two days ago, but I think Adam LaRoche is in a better situation as well.  For him, for his playing style, and for his personality.  We in Pittsburgh never really embraced any of those things, and I hope he finds in Boston whatever was missing here.

What a difference a week makes

I knew that this weekend was going to be awesome before it even played out.  First, there was the email from my season ticket account executive last Monday, asking me if I’d like to come to the park on Friday and watch the Buccos take batting practice.  (I’m fairly confident I have never been asked an easier question.)  Then, there was the fact that Rocco was doing a live broadcast from the park after Friday’s game.  And then, there was the impending visit of Kev (aka the blog’s most loyal reader, or TBMLR) and his wife Jean, also a dear friend of mine (and a former partner in crime when it came to attending Pirate games).  And when I heard, driving into work on Friday morning, that the Pirates had offered contract extensions to Jack and Freddy, I thought things couldn’t possibly get any better.

And so it was that, later that day, I arrived at PNC Park at 3:55 PM for a 7:05 PM game.  My account executive, Rich, met me in the main lobby of the Pirate offices, and away we went.  Walking through the service tunnel, I looked up to see Andrew McCutchen a few feet in front of us.  We went down through the umpires’ entrance, and then we were on the field.

I don’t mean to sound like a fancy-pants, but I’ve been on the field before.  Last season, I gave tours of the ballpark, and a stop in the dugout and on the warning track was always the grand finale.  Plus, at the end of last season, the other season ticket holders and I got to frolic and play catch on the field.  But I have never been on the field at the same time as the Pirates, and that made this opportunity all the more exciting.

Rich and I took up our posts on the dugout railing, right near where the on-deck circle (which is actually this large rug) goes.  The pitchers were hitting when we got out there, and the position players were stretching and soft-tossing out in centerfield.  The next hour was a flurry of activity, with balls flying every which way (from whichever coach was throwing BP at the moment to Tony Beasley hitting grounders to Jack to the Pirates’ players doing this weird thing for everybody’s first swing, in which the batter would bunt the ball to a player standing right in front of him, who would, in turn, bunt the ball to the player standing right across from him).  I even got hit in the leg with an errant throw at one point, but the bruise on my shin is not nearly as palpable as was my excitement at getting to keep the ball.  (More on that to come.)

Having watched the Pirates take batting practice, I have now concluded that besides athletic pursuits, several other things go on during that time.  I say this without criticism or condescencion, but there seems to be a lot of three things happening: standing around (the Pirate infielders formed a little enclave in shallow left field for the last 15 minutes or so of BP), singing along with the PA system (at one point, Andy LaRoche serenaded Jack, at length, with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”), and general goofing off (which in the case of Andrew McCutchen and Freddy Sanchez takes the form of wild dancing, and in the case of Andy LaRoche takes the form of hurling chewed-up wads of gum at your older brother).  And I felt so lucky to have gotten to witness it, because it allowed me to see the Pirates as grown-up little kids, who seem to genuinely enjoy one another’s company, while also maintaining an adequate understanding that they are living millions of people’s dreams every time they come to work.

And speaking of things I felt lucky to witness, Friday night’s game is definitely in the running for the best one of the second half.  Paul Maholm matched Tim Lincecum, virtually pitch for pitch, and Garrett Jones hit yet another homer early to continue the evolution of his rapidly growing, Roy Hobbesian legacy.  But when the Giants scored a cheap, unearned run in the top of the seventh, it looked like the game might go on for a while.

And it did — through the tenth inning, the eleventh, the twelfth, the thirteenth, the fourteenth.  And as the night wore on, and 11:00 came and went, I started to have conflicting emotions.  On the one hand, the Giants were putting many more men on base in the extra frames, which made me think that they were going to win.  But on the other hand, when games go that long in Pittsburgh, you really start to feel like the Pirates are going to win, almost as a sort of reward for the fans’ loyalty.  Bearing that optimism in mind, I penciled in the Pirates batter by batter on the hastily-drawn, extra innings portion of my scorecard.

And it was Garrett Jones, of course (who else, really?) who provided the long-awaited reward when, leading off the bottom of the fourteenth, he crushed a Bob Howry offering over the center field seats.  The ball bounced on the sidewalk and wound up in the Allegheny, and I cannot tell you how fantastic it was.

Despite the late hour, I headed over to the Hall of Fame Club to check out Rocco’s live broadcast.  I was particularly excited about his planned interview with Neal Huntington, even though I was sure the GM couldn’t comment on the negotiations with my two favorite Buccos.  That much proved correct, but it was still a spirited broadcast, which I greatly enjoyed.  And by the time everything had wrapped up, it was 1:00 in the morning, and I was walking back to my car.

The evening was cool, particularly for this time of year, and there was a hint of the rain that had earlier delayed the game’s first pitch by 45 minutes.  And as I walked around PNC Park, I felt completely, totally at home.

That feeling continued the next day, when Kev and Jean arrived.  They are two of my favorite people, and seeing them always reminds me of the two great years that Jean and I lived together, and Kev essentially lived at our house, too.  (They moved to Philly last summer and married last fall.)  We kicked off their visit with a trip to Fuddruckers, which we made with the understanding that we needed to return to my house by 7:05 (for obvious reasons).  We made it home at 7:04, flipped on FSN, and got out the Super Scrabble board.  The evening was spent as we had so many before, and my delight at being reunited with two of my best friends was only furthered when the Pirates won the game, 2-0.  I’ll admit to not watching the game as closely as I usually do, but I can tell you that it was very well-played, all the way around.

And so I was feeling pretty excited as Kev, Jean, and I headed to the ballpark yesterday afternoon.  We had gotten good seats, two rows back from the left field corner (ironically, the very same seats we sat in during the last game they attended at PNC Park), and I was feeling pretty confident about the chances of a sweep.  That hope continued when the Pirates staked themselves to a 1-0 lead on Brandon Moss’ solo home run, and when Zach Duke was both effective and efficient through his first five innings.  But then, in the top of the sixth, in a rapid-fire sequence of no more than 10 pitches (somewhat reminiscent of that terrible game last Saturday in Philadelphia), the Giants hit back-to-back-to-back-to-back doubles, and suddenly, the Pirates’ 1-0 lead was a 4-1 deficit.

But then the bottom of the eighth came, and the Pirates scored two runs and were poised to tie the game, and Adam LaRoche stepped to the plate with Ryan Doumit at first and one out, and the count went to 3-0, and I turned to Kev and said, “he’s going to ground into a double-play,” and on the very next pitch, he did.  There was still an inning to play, but the ballgame was essentially over.

And it was annoying to me, because this could have been the perfect weekend.  Still, I’m not going to lie — it came pretty darn close.  And as Kev, Jean, and I made our way to the gathering of season ticket holders waiting to take the field for another session of catch, I got really excited again.  Because let’s be honest — no matter how many times you go on to a Major League field, the thrill never gets old.

And so we frolicked.  We threw.  We caught.  We enjoyed getting to feel the grass and the warning track.  We took the requisite pictures of “home run robbing catches” at the wall.  And for once, I was able to forget about a Pirate loss, and not feel its sting quite so strongly.

The night brought more quality time with Kev and Jean (as well as the significantly less exciting news about the major impasse in the Jack and Freddy negotiations), and as I went to sleep last night, I thought about what a difference a week can make.  After all, it was only a week ago that the Pirates were manhandled by their cross-state rivals, in a series that featured the worst game I’ve attended this year (and possibly ever).  And then there was this past weekend, in which the Pirates took two of three (almost three of three) from the current Wild Card leaders.  Although the offense remained paltry, the pitching was great (even with Zach’s sixth), and from start to finish, on the field and off it, the weekend was fantastic.

And to get back to the ball that I got in batting practice for a second — I decided, upon arriving home from Friday night’s game, to keep the ball on my nightstand, even if that makes me 26-going-on-7.  I’ll admit to lovingly tracing the stitches on the ball several times since then.  I’ll admit to looking at it right before bed, and first thing in the morning, and smiling every time.  And sometimes I feel silly for being such a little kid. 

But then I think of Andy LaRoche chucking gum at Adam.  I think of Andrew McCutchen grooving while he waits for his turn in the cage.  I think of Jack and Freddy jawing back and forth while doing their warm-up tosses.  And I realize that being a kid, as it relates to baseball, isn’t necessarily something to be ashamed of after all.

The envelope, please…

So I realize that the timeliness of a post continuing to evaluate the first half is a little off, as we are now three games into the second half.  But last week brought statistical analysis (mixed in with some feline preferences).  This week brings sheer opinions, on the season’s bests, worsts, and everything in between.  Obviously, the recently completed series with the Giants does not count in these evaluations (although a separate entry about those games is coming, post-haste).

Best game attended at PNC Park: This is a close one.  Do I opt for Zach Duke’s masterful performance in the Home Opener on April 13, or the Pirates’ walk-off win against the Indians on June 25?  I think I have to give it to the latter, if for no other reason than the event of the Home Opener is exciting enough on its own.  Let’s face it — I would have had a great time at the Opener even if the Pirates hadn’t won, if for no other reason than everything the day signifies.  But a big win like that against the Tribe, on a random Thursday in the middle of the season, carries more excitement points on its own. 

Worst game attended at PNC Park: Well, the May 31 game against the Astros was painful, filled with missed opportunities on offense and, ultimately, yet another loss against stupid Mike Hampton.  But by far the most heart-wrenching game I’ve witnessed this year in Pittsburgh was the May 15 loss to the Rockies.  The Pirates took a tenuous 1-0 lead into the ninth, and then all it took was a double by Ian Stewart and a homer into the “Pirate” bushes in center by Brad Hawpe to give the Rockies the game.  Ryan Spilborghs added a run of his own, after earlier absolutely robbing Jack of a homer, the lower the Jolly Roger and give the Rox a 3-1 win.  Yeah, it was painful.

Best game attended on the road: The Pirates’ 10-2 win over the Reds on April 11 was pretty awesome, if for no other reason than it was the first time in over six months that I got to see my boys live.  But this award goes, undoubtedly, to the win over the White Sox on May 24.  First, my friend and traveling companion Hykos surprised me with seats four rows behind the Pirate dugout.  And then, with two outs and two strikes on him in the ninth, Jack doinked the game-tying homer off of stupid white-beard Bobby Jenks.  A Nyjer Morgan double and Delwyn Young single followed, as did perhaps Matt Capps’ most dominant outing of the year (three swinging strikeouts).  I flew back to Pittsburgh that night on a Southwest flight, but I probably could have gotten there on my own after that thrilling win.

Worst game attended on the road: This one is a no-brainer.  Yes, the Pirates’ 10-1 drubbing at the hands of the Mets on May 9 was bad, but when it comes to soul-crushing defeats, nothing beats the July 11, 8-7 loss to the Phillies.  In a matter of minutes, a 7-3 lead turned into an 8-7 deficit and a pile of Phillies bouncing around home plate.  I’m pretty sure that I witnessed the worst outing of Matt Capps’ career that night — he faced 8 batters and retired one of them (and that on a fly ball that went to the deepest part of the yard).  It was awful.

5 most exciting moments: This one is tough, because I’m so afraid I’m going to forget one.  So let’s just do the ones that come to the top of my head, in no particular order:

1.) Jack’s bases-clearing double into the left field gap on Opening Day, effectively silencing  the St. Louis crowd and allowing the Pirates to steal the game.

2.) The Home Opener, start to finish.

3.) Seeing Paul Maholm’s first career home run, and in cavernous Citi Field of all places.

4.) The Jack jack in Chicago.

5.) The seventh through ninth innings of the Pirates/Indians game on June 25.

5 most depressing moments: Again, off the top of my head, in no particular order:

1.) Looking at the schedule and seeing Mike Hampton’s name as the opposing pitcher (or, alternately, the Brewers as the opponent).

2.) Watching the arc of Brad Hawpe’s home run on May 15.

3.) The bottom of the ninth inning on July 11.

4.) Seeing Adam LaRoche step to the plate in any remotely key, potentially game-changing situation.

5.) The first time I saw Nate McLouth in a Braves’ uniform.  It’s been, what, six weeks or so, and it’s still weird.

Most shocking moment: Given #5 above, perhaps it’s no surprise (pardon the pun) that this award goes to the trade of Nate McLouth.  I was out at Bible Study that night, and when I came home and turned my phone back on, there was a voicemail from Kev — “The Pirates have traded Nate McLouth.  I’m not kidding.”  I remember slumping into the wall in my foyer, dialing him back as quickly as I could, and rightly groaning, “please tell me you’re kidding.”  Alas, he was not.

Biggest surprise (pitcher): The next few kind of piggyback on last week’s entries, but that’s how it’s going to go.  This award goes to Zach Duke.  I always believed that the crazily talented rookie we saw in ’05 was in there somewhere, but as year after year of futility piled up, it became hard to keep that torch burning.  Zach has rewarded the Pirate faithful in spades this year.  Think what he could be with some run support — it’s scary.

Biggest surprise (position player): Andrew McCutchen looks as good as advertised, which I’m sorry to say means I doubted him at first.  But you know what?  Given the fates of some of the other recent Pirate first-round draft picks, it’s easy to be skeptical.  Luckily, in “Cutch,” we seem to have a real, legitimate superstar-caliber player.

Biggest disappointment (pitcher): Ian Snell went from a number-two starter to a first-class bust.  The only thing more disappointing than his on-field performance in Pittsburgh (and the awful attitude that accompanied it) is that there is apparently no interest in him on the trade market.

Biggest disappointment (position player): Speaking of no interest on the trade market, Adam LaRoche is in the midst of, arguably, his worst season out of his overwhelmingly mediocre stint in Pittsburgh.  The only time the homers seem to come, the bases are empty and the game is already out of hand.  Any other situation, and that gorgeous swing of his (which I say without sarcasm) is going right through a third strike.

Player I wish the Pirates would trade: Much as I dislike Ian Snell, this award goes to Adam LaRoche.  Garrett Jones can easily step in at first, thus allowing the Buccos’ glut of outfield prospects to get regular playing time as well.

Player I don’t want the Pirates to trade: Hello!  Scroll up and take a look at the picture that graces the blog, and there’s your answer.  A very strong second would be his BFF and double play partner extraordinaire.

Best series played by the team so far: June 1-4 against the Mets.  Now, the Pirates did lose the rain make-up of the third game of this series (played a month later), but taking the three games that were played in early June, it was a very strong performance.  Whether it was taking advantage of a beleaguered Mets’ bullpen with a five-run eighth in the opener, beating the always frightening Johan Santana in the second game, or bouncing back from the decimation of the Nate trade with a very satisfying 11-6 win the next day, it was a fantastic series.  A very close runner-up in this category is the three-game sweep of the Marlins April 20-22.  They came into Pittsburgh the hottest team in baseball, and left with their tails (well, at least their tail fins) between their legs.

Worst series played by the team so far: Oh, that there were not so many to choose from.  And yet…  Could it be the Mets’ series May 8-10?  The sweeps at the hands of the Brewers (in late April), the Rockies (in mid-June), or the Phillies (just last week)?  It’s kind of making me sick to think about, so let’s make this one a four-way tie and move on.

Stat I’d most like to see the Bucs improve on in second half: Take your pick from any one of the offensive categories.  I’m not one of those “chicks [who] dig the long ball,” but a few more home runs sure would be nice.  Or even just some more clutch hitting.  Or fewer men left on base.

Stat I’d most like to see hold steady in second half: This is the converse — virtually anything with pitching and defense.  The starting rotation has, on the whole, out-performed expectations, and I’d venture to say that the bullpen has as well.  Plus with speedsters in the outfield and sure-handed fielders around the diamond, the defense is quite sound.

MVP of the first half (pitching): Zach Duke, for reasons cited above and elsewhere.

MVP of the first half (offense): Freddy Sanchez.  His 2006 form is back; his 2008 injuries are forgotten; and he remains the most reliable and consistent bat in the Bucco lineup.

MVP of the first half (defense): Is there any question?  Jack wins this one.  If defense could, like pitches, be called filthy, the moniker would apply to him.  He’s arguably playing the best defense of his career, and I defy you to find me a Pirate shortstop prospect (or potential trade acquisition) who can turn half the plays that Jack does.

What I’m most looking forward to in/about the second half: A few things, which will be listed here at random…another 2.5 months of Bucco baseball…seeing the horrid, heaven-forsaken streak against the Brewers come to an end (it has to — I mean, seriously)…potentially going to Cincinnati again to see the Buccos.

What I’m dreading most in/about the second half: Also at random…the trade deadline, and the deals for Freddy and Jack that are increasingly looking like only-a-matter-of-time realities…the horrid, heaven-forsaken streak against the Brewers continuing (what if it turns out that it actually doesn’t have to end?)…October 4, 2009, in Cincinnati, the last game of the year.

First half in review: position players

OK, position players, the pitchers went under the microscope a few days ago, and now, it’s your turn.  That’s right, JollyRog is pleased to present yet another first-half report card, this one on the position players.  We’ll go through each player (in alphabetical order), comment briefly on his performance (both offensively and defensively), and give him a grade.  I will try to keep this strictly statistical, but I can’t promise that my emotions or personal preferences won’t factor into the equation. 

With that said, let’s get to it!

Bixler, Brian: Yikes.  Not a good place to start.  Bixler has consistently looked overmatched in the Bigs, and after all the fanfare about him in spring training, his early cup of coffee this year quickly turned bitter.  During one stretch, he struck out 15 times in 18 at-bats.  His defense is OK, but he will always be viewed (and rightfully so) in comparison to the incomparable Jack Wilson.  Not to be harsh, but I’m not sure “Bix” has a long-term future with the Pirates, or any Major League team, for that matter.  Grade: F

Cruz, Luis: He was quickly sent down at the beginning of the year, and hasn’t seen more than an at-bat or two since his recall last week.  His defense is smooth, but is it smooth enough to take over for Jack or Freddy on an everyday basis, in the event of a cataclysmic trade?  That much remains to be seen.  For these reasons, he receives an I, for incomplete.

Diaz, Robinzon: My hope for Diaz (who was demoted when our next Bucco, Ryan Doumit, returned from injury) is that he will use this stint in the minors to work on pitch selection.  Much as the Pirate announcers like to compare him to Manny Sanguillen, and laugh about how he’ll swing at anything, this isn’t Little League.  If you go up there swinging at everything, word will get around, and pretty soon you’ll be regarded as an easier out than Brian Bixler.  Diaz’s defense also left something to be desired.  That said, production from the catcher’s spot during Doumit’s injury could have completely disappeared, and Diaz gets props for helping to make sure that didn’t happen.  Grade: C+

Doumit, Ryan: His sample size is small (he was hurt less than two weeks into the season, and returned a mere three games before the All-Star break), and my view might be biased.  But the fact remains that Doumit is viewed as the leader of this team, and he must now share half of the “cornerstone of the franchise” weight (or should we say burden) with Paul Maholm in the wake of Nate McLouth’s departure.  Doumit gets bonus points for consistently being one of the nicest Buccos anytime I meet him, and also for embodying a team-first attitude.  Grade: B

Hinske, Eric: Apparently management was disappointed with his stint with the Buccos; honestly, I’m not sure it was the best match.  Hinske was looking to start everyday, and despite the outcry from Pirate fans on talk radio (clamoring for the benching of Adam LaRoche or Brandon Moss in favor of Hinske), management didn’t agree with such assessments of his role.  Offensively and defensively, he was kind of just OK.  He does receive bonus points for having the straightest teeth I’ve ever seen (seriously — look at a picture of him) and for having a name that’s similar to someone very important to me.  Still, his grade is: C+

Jaramillo, Jason: He’s duking it out with our next Bucco for most pleasant surprise amongst position players.  He and Diaz actually formed a nice tandem during Doumit’s injury, and Jaramillo performed (both offensively and defensively) beyond most anyone’s expectations.  When you consider that the Pirates acquired him for the petulant and terrible Ronny Paulino, Jaramillo helps give bonus points to Neal Huntington as well.  The question is, how will he adjust to a bench role now that Doumit is back?  Definitely a storyline to focus on in the second half.  Grade: A-

Jones, Garrett: He’s provided the power that the lineup has so sorely lacked, and hasn’t seemed fazed at all by the Big Leagues.  Granted, he’s been up for a total of two weeks, but still, to this point, I’m impressed.  Plus, his speed means that he can cause a stir on the basepaths and track down a lot of balls in the outfield, certainly more than opponents would expect, given his size.  He gets bonus points for being one of those guys who’s finally making the most of his opportunity, after spending years blocked in the Twins’ system.  Grade: A

LaRoche, Adam: A big conundrum.  Start to finish (or should I say start to halfway mark), this has been perhaps his most disappointing season in a Pirates’ uniform.  The problem being that the worst he does for the Bucs, the harder it will be to find a suitable trade partner.  Which means, potentially, that the Pirates could lose him and gain nothing in return.  LaRoche’s soft hands at first are definitely taken for granted, as he can pick it with the best of them.  But the numerous long, seemingly interminable slumps in which he just looks lost at the plate are so detrimental to the team.  How many times have we seen him strike out (swinging or looking), fly out harmlessly, or ground out weakly?  This is not the kind of production you need from your cleanup hitter.  Adam also loses points just for being a disappointment during his time in Pittsburgh.  That’s not all his fault, but it’s kind of amazing to look back at the fanfare that preceded his arrival, compared to the vitriole that will likely accompany his departure.  Grade: D+

LaRoche, Andy: Still very much a work in progress, but he gets bonus points for coming out this season with something to prove (namely, that he was worth trading Jason Bay for).  He is markedly improved both offensively and defensively, and even when he makes outs, it’s usually with a line drive.  Andy is an intriguing player.  Grade: B

McCutchen, Andrew: The kid seems to have lived up to the hype.  Talk about not being fazed by the Big Leagues.  He runs (both on the basepaths and into the gaps), he hits (tying the league leader in triples within his first three weeks with the team), and he brings that utmost intangible, youthful energy.  If I could make one criticism, it’s that the throws to the plate (or even the infield) need to get more accurate.  You can’t sky one when the runner’s coming home and it’s a key situation.  And yet that’s what we’ve already seen McCutchen do several times.  I’d also like to see the ego get in check a little bit.  Grade: A-

McLouth, Nate: Sigh.  Oh, Nate.  The middle of the order has been hurting since his departure, that’s for sure.  Before that, he was always good for the key hit, or the late home run, or the running snare.  I’m lionizing a bit and I realize that, but I still miss Nate and what he brought to the lineup.  Some will say the Gold Glove is a farce; others will argue that he’s not a legitimate star; but he was dedicated to the Pirates, and he gets bonus points for that.  Grade: A-

Monroe, Craig: Monroe was good for some big homers (his two three-run jacks in consecutive innings on April 18 rank among the best moments of the season so far, and resulted in the rare curtain call at PNC Park), but his lack of hustle was ultimately his downfall.  I liked the veteran leadership that he brought, but that “veteran” status (read: “old”) also meant that he was somewhat slow, so virtually anyone else in the outfield is an upgrade (except, say, Steven Pearce).  The Pirates cut him loose, so it’s difficult to give an unbiased grade.  Still, he receives a C-.

Morgan, Nyjer: Oh, Nyjer.  Infectious love of the game + a willingness to throw one’s body around + a tangible sense of excitement whenever he took the field = a player who is sorely missed.  Yes, unfortunately, the strong first half that Nyjer cobbled together was ultimately enough to heighten his trade value, and the Pirates did the right thing and sold high.  It’s too early to judge the return, of course (Lastings Milledge, I’m looking at you), but you have to wonder if an average player who’s a great clubhouse guy isn’t worth more, ultimately, than a five-tool guy with a bad attitude.  For his defensive prowess (best outfielder in the Majors), his havoc-wreaking on the bases, and his all-around approach, Nyjer receives an A-.

Moss, Brandon: About the only bonus points Moss receives are those for being one of my cat’s three favorite Pirates.  Other than that, he’s been a disappointment, to the point where he has been forced basically into a platoon role with Delwyn Young.  The promised power is in there somewhere, but it’s going to have to emerge, and soon, lest the fans engage in another anti-Bay-trade uprising.  Moss isn’t bad defensively, but I’d love to see him be a little bit speedier in tracking down fly balls.  Grade: C-

Pearce, Steven: Perhaps the only player to look more overmatched than Brian Bixler, Steven Pearce presents a similar problem, in that, if the incumbent at that position gets traded, what do the Pirates do without any viable internal replacements?  Pearce has looked downright awful at the plate, and even worse in right field.  Here’s hoping he spends his latest stint in Indy (where he was optioned last week) learning how to avoid the sharp breaking ball at the plate, and learning to read the ball off the bat better in the field.  Grade: D

Salazar, Jeff: The sample size (4 at-bats) is simply too small.  Still, although a bench guy, Salazar represents someone with Major League experience, and he apparently will give McCutchen the occasional day off.  Check back at season’s end on Salazar.  In the meantime, he receives an I.

Sanchez, Freddy: At the plate, Freddy seems to have regained his ’06 batting champion form.  In the field, he’s never looked better.  After an injury-plagued 2008 campaign, Freddy looks stronger and more confident this year.  He is the Pirates’ best all-around hitter, and the longtime friendship he shares with double-play partner Jack Wilson (and the familiarity bred by that relationship) helps take their defense to a whole other level.  Grade: A+

Vazquez, Ramon: He was signed as a bench player, and that’s pretty much been his role to this point in the season (save the week that he started when Freddy hurt his back getting out of a cab).  He’s not much of a power threat, but he’ll put bat to ball when asked.  His range in the field, however, leaves much to be desired.  Grade: B-

Wilson, Jack: Let’s be honest here and admit that this is not going to be an unbiased review of Jack.  It never is, with me.  The nice thing is, this year, it’s not just me thinking that he’s the best defensive shortstop in the Majors — the metrics confirm it, too.  The pundits say that Jack is playing the best defense of his career, and it’s rare to see a nightly highlight reel scroll by without an entry from #2 at short.  Plus, he’s been showing a little bit more pop at the plate, and has been making good contact all year, especially of late.  Jack gets major bonus points for being a class act off the field, and we can only hope he’ll still be in black and gold when the time rolls around for the end-of-the-season review.  Grade: A+

Young, Delwyn: Acquired for, essentially, a bag of balls, Young has been another very pleasant surprise.  His pinch-hit numbers are impressive, but I’d love to see him be more consistent when he starts.  And I don’t think anyone could argue that the defense (in both his natural outfield and his still-in-the-learning-phases second base positions) needs to get better.  Still, he’s worked his way into being an integral cog in the Pirates’ machine.  Grade: A-

Overall, despite their mostly strong individual grades (I must be in a benevolent mood), the offense receives a C+.  The lack of clutch hits, the bevy of men left on base, and the sheer inconsistency (often ranging from 7-10 runs one night to 3-5 hits the next) are just paralyzing this team.  The defense, on the other hand, which has been a strong suit, is, in fact, strong enough to merit an A.

 

 

First half in review: pitchers

Have you thrown a pitch in a Pirate uniform in 2009?  If so, prepare for your close-up.  That’s right, JollyRog is pleased to present a first-half report card on the pitching staff.  We’ll go through each player (in alphabetical order), comment on his performance in 75 words or less, and give him a grade.  I will try to keep this strictly statistical, but I can’t promise that my emotions or personal preferences won’t factor into the equation.  Stay tuned for similar entries on the offense and the defense — as well as an overall recap — which are coming your way over the course of the next few days.

Burnett, Sean: Overall, solid, with the exception of the game against the Astros on April 16 and the game against the Padres on April 24.  Burnett definitely showed improvement over last year. apparently to the point of becoming attractive to the Nationals. Grade: B

Capps, Matt: Of course, his most recent appearance was Saturday’s debacle (which might be coloring my perceptions), but even before that, he’s been questionable all year.  The walks and home runs are up, the strikeouts are down, and count me among those concerned for his future.  Grade: C

Chavez, Jesse: Arguably the biggest surprise on the staff.  With his 11.45 ERA in spring training and the fact that Evan Meek’s illness was the only reason he came north with the club, I thought for sure he’d be the first to be sent down.  Instead, Chavez has been solid, and John Russell has shown confidence in going to him against all kinds of hitters, in all kinds of situations.  Grade: A-

Duke, Zach: Arguably the second-biggest surprise on the staff.  His hard work in the offseason has undeniably paid off, and he has been the Bucs’ most consistent pitcher to date.  Even when tagged with the loss, he’s still thrown good games.  Remember that stat I threw at you yesterday — in those eight losses, he’s gotten a total of seven runs of support.  It will be fun to watch him in the second half.  Grade: A+

Gorzelanny, Tom: His demotion in spring was a pleasant surprise.  His promotion (to the bullpen!?) was also a pleasant surprise.  Although management seems to fancy him a starter in the organization’s long-term plan, I kind of liked his work in middle relief.  Let’s just say I’m intrigued.  Grade: B-

Grabow, John: The Pirates’ most consistently reliable reliever.  The only bad thing I can say is that if he’s traded, the bullpen becomes significantly — almost frighteningly — less formidable.  Johnny Grabs will also always get bonus points for being a fantastic bowling partner to my roommate and me two years ago.  Grade: A

Hanrahan, Joel: A little too early to comment on his performance for the Pirates.  Suffice it to say that things did not go well with the Nationals.  Anytime you’re removed from the closer’s role in the worst bullpen in baseball, it’s far from a feather in your cap.  Hanrahan gets bonus points for earning the win while taking a nap in his hotel room last week, but his grade is still an I, for incomplete.

Hansen, Craig: I’m giving Hansen an incomplete as well, since he’s spent most of the season battling a freak injury and only appeared in 5 games so far.  As far as I’ve heard, there’s no timetable for his return.  Obviously, Pirates’ management liked him enough to get him included in the Jason Bay trade last year, but Hansen still has a lot to prove.  Grade: I

Jackson, Steven: He was obtained primarily for his sinkerballing abilities, and we’ve seen that, a little bit.  But we’ve also seen a fair amount of walks (11 in 18.1 innings) and hits (16 in 18.1 innings), and those numbers are going to have to go down if he’s going to be a true, high-leverage reliever.  Of course, he’s also in Indianapolis right now.  Grade: C+

Karstens, Jeff: An interesting case.  He was OK — not great, not terrible — over the course of his ten starts.  But then, upon his “demotion” (if you will) to the bullpen, he got really good.  Take Sunday, in which he struck out the side against one of the best hitting teams in baseball.  He is kind of struggling from Gorzelanny syndrome — what is his long-term role?  It will be interesting to see.  Karstens gets bonus points for being one of my cat’s favorite Pirates.  Grade: B-

Maholm, Paul: Arguably the biggest disappointment on the staff so far.  You don’t need to go too far back in the blog to see that my expectations for “Money” were very high going into the season, perhaps unfairly so.  Maholm’s season has been marred by inconsistency so far — he’s either been really good (giving up a few runs several times) or really bad (giving up 5+ several times).  His task for the second half is to get more consistent in those “few runs” games.  Grade: B-

Meek, Evan: Still too many walks (24 in 33.2 innings), but so far, he’s been proving the Pirates’ management right for keeping him despite all the Rule 5 red tape last year.  Meek also gets “cat favorite” bonus points.  Grade: B-

Morton, Charlie: His stuff is nasty, but it needs to be harnessed.  He also carries the burden of being one of the guys who came over the Nate McLouth deal that was hugely unpopular amongst the Pirate fanbase.  Another guy who’s intriguing, but whose sample size is too small.  Hence, his grade is an I.

Ohlendorf, Ross: Tree Trunk Arms has been a strong fourth starter, and he seems to rise to the occasion when facing an elite opponent (Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels come to mind most recently).  He gets bonus points for being a Princeton grad, and for apparently being frighteningly smart.  Not much seems to rattle him, and that calmness can only be a help going forward.  Grade: B+

Snell, Ian: Terrible performance on the field, worse attitude off of it.  And yet we wish him all the best in Indianapolis, because the better he does there, the more it maximizes his trade value.  Grade: F

Vasquez, Virgil: His Pirates’ debut was pretty good (not great), but since then he’s been pretty much your standard organizational sixth starter.  He gets bonus points for his formidable head of hair, but his high walk numbers (much, much higher than advertised) are a major cause for concern.  Maybe it’s unfair to give Vasquez a letter grade when Charlie Morton (who’s started more games) gets an incomplete, but you know what?  He’s still getting a grade.  And it is a C-

Veal, Donnie: What can you say — he’s kind of the classic Rule 5 guy.  He has to stay on the Major League roster, even if it means riding the pine.  That’s pretty much what’s happened to this point, and in some ways his injury in late May (which kept him on the DL through early July) was a blessing, although that sounds horrible to say.  He gets bonus points for having an inspirational personal story.  Grade: C

Yates, Tyler: Will he ever pitch again?  He’s been hurt for what seems like the entire season (in truth, he’s made 15 appearances covering 12 innings), and when he’s pitched, it’s not been good (he’s given up 12 runs in those 12 innings).  He loses points just for being a disappointment, both with his performance and with his injury.  Grade: D

Overall, I’m giving both the starting pitching and the bullpen a B.  Compared to the rest of the league, the Pirates’ pitchers are, on the whole, not that impressive.  But compared to last year (I shutter to even think about it), there’s been a marked improvement, up and down the staff, both in terms of the individual personnel, and the skills of that personnel.