Thursday, August 30, 2007

August success causes mixed emotions

Matt Capps celebrates a Pirate win on Tuesday night - AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

On July 31, the Pirates’ season was lost. They were 42-62, 14.5 games behind first place Milwaukee, and sitting in last place in the NL Central. Suddenly they got hot. The Bucs are now 17-11 in the month of August, and despite last night’s loss to the Reds, only 8.5 games behind first place Chicago.

This sudden surge has produced two different viewpoints for players and fans. The first is that the Pirates have a legitimate opportunity to reach the postseason. The Cubs are currently in first place with a mediocre record of 67-64, and nobody seems interested in winning the division. With 23 of their final 30 games against NL Central teams, the Pirates are not dead yet. Sorry, but this is not going to happen. If the Pirates could somehow win 20 of 30 games, they would still be relying on other teams to fall apart. Simply to finish tied for first place, the Pirates would need the Cubs to finish 12-19, the Brewers 13-17, St. Louis 15-18, and the Reds 18-11. Considering NL Central teams will be playing the majority of their remaining games against other NL Central teams, this is very unlikely. I thought about going through each team’s schedule to determine if it is even mathematically possible, but I do not have the energy for that sort of research. (Keep in mind, I am dreaming about some sort of miracle finish too.)

The other point of view is that a strong finish will hurt the Pirates in the end. If the Pirates approach .500 by the end of the season, it might convince management to keep general manager Dave Littlefield. The team would actually benefit by falling apart over the final month of the season, as it would force ownership to clean house. I agree that the team must fire Littlefield if it ever wants to become a quality baseball club. But I am not sure the Pirates final record in 2007 will have a large effect on the decision. The most important factor will be ownership’s choice for the CEO position. Any quality baseball mind can see that Littlefield has done a terrible job as general manager. If the new CEO decides to keep Littlefield, based on any reason, we have much larger problems in Pittsburgh. That will be the new CEO’s first true test.

So what does this mean for Pirate fans? Do not get your hopes up for a potential playoff berth. It is extremely unlikely. But we do not have to root against our Bucs. Enjoy every win that we can get.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Weekend adventures in Houston

Adam LaRoche finally ends the party early Saturday morning - AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

Making the five-hour drive to southern Michigan Friday evening, I expected to catch the Pirate game on the radio and still have some free time before my arrival. There was little indication that the game would last nearly five hours itself, well past the time I arrived at my destination. There was nothing I could do but sit alone in my car, listening intently to the Houston broadcast on the trusty XM radio. The call of Xavier Nady's home run was beautiful. Severely paraphrased: "Brad [Lidge] said Nady will occasionally be fooled by the slider. In fact he struck out Nady on a check swing in Pittsburgh to end a game." After a pause, Milo Hamilton says softly, "He didn't fool him there. Nady just tied the game." Even with the loss yesterday, it was a good weekend for Pirates baseball.

But why do the Pirates insist on forcing Nady onto the field? I understand he is a gamer. I understand he wants to play. I love players like that, as I would assume many people do. That was great when he pinch-hit with a partially torn hamstring and tied the game with a ninth inning home run. But the largest concern should be having him ready for the beginning of 2008. This is a player that the Pirates are counting on to be in the middle of the lineup next year, and there is no reason to risk serious injury in an effort to reach 70 wins this year. It is one thing to start Tony Armas over Shane Youman (stupid, but I won't lose much sleep over it), but it is completely different to risk the health of a player you need in the future. This is a lost season. Nady should be shut down for the year so he can get ready for spring training.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Phelps powers Pirates

Josh Phelps owns the Rockies - AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

Josh Phelps is a robot. A robot that hits baseballs well. Phelps went 4 for 5 with two doubles and three RBI's yesterday, as the Pirates beat the Rockies, 5-1. Since joining the Pirates, he is now hitting a whopping .432/.519/.818, despite being used mostly as a pinch-hitter and making just eight starts. And yet, the Pirates have struggled to get him on the field. Phelps' ideal position is first base, and Adam LaRoche is set as the starter there. The Pirates stayed with LaRoche through a miserable first half, and they are not going to put him on the bench now (he is hitting .335/.398/.553 since the beginning of July and .349/.415/.578 in August). Phelps' bat would be a huge upgrade over Ronny Paulino at catcher, but the Pirates are not sold on his defense behind the plate. Phelps, to his credit, seems to have embraced his role as a power bat coming off the bench.

Paul Maholm pitched well, continuing his strong season. Maholm needed just 89 pitches (58 strikes) to cruise through seven innings, allowing only one run. After fighting through an up and down first two months, Maholm is 8-7 with a 3.77 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 58/29 K/BB ratio, and 0.63 HR/9 since June 1. His strong season has made it a bit easier to stomach the disappointing fall of Zach Duke this year.

Matt Capps has had very few save opportunities in the second half, and many people probably have not realized how dominant he has been this year. He now has a 2.25 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 48/12 K/BB ratio, and 0.56 HR/9. Those are phenomenal numbers. Yesterday, in a non-save situation, Capps effortlessly retired the side on 14 pitches (11 strikes). He struck out two. He has been doing it all year.

The Pirates took three of four from the Rockies, who are battling for a possible postseason berth. Now it is off to Houston for a three-game series. I will be out of town for the weekend, so there will be no updates here. See everyone on Monday.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Pirates roll in Denver

Nate McLouth circles the bases again - AP Photo/David Zalubowski

The Pirates pulled the bats back out last night in Denver. Six home runs and a decent start from Tom Gorzelanny were the difference, and the Bucs took the game by a score of 9-2.

Nate McLouth continued his power display, hitting two more home runs to highlight a 3 for 5 night. Chris Duffy injured his ankle on June 27, providing McLouth with regular playing time in center field. From June 28 to the present, he has hit .276/.351/.566 in 152 at-bats. He has hit nine home runs, or one every 16.9 at-bats. Seven of those home runs have come in the past 19 days. Nate has clearly taken the lead in the competition to be the Pirates' starting center fielder in 2008.

Also hitting one home run each - Jack Wilson, Xavier Nady, Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez

I did not get to see any of this game, so that is all you will get from me. Here are a few notes:
  • With less than two weeks remaining in the season, I felt it was a good time to order the MiLB.TV package. I watched some of the Indianapolis Indians game in Toledo last night. These guys are definitely being groomed to be Pirates. John Van Benschoten labored through the second inning. According to the Toledo announcer, he had thrown 44 pitches when I walked away to get some food. I am not sure how many he had thrown by the end of that inning, but he did face two more batters. 5-1 Mud Hens after two. In the fifth, the Indians loaded the bases with nobody out. Andrew McCutchen popped out and Brian Bixler hit into a double play to end the inning. The Mud Hens won, 8-4. It was kind of depressing to watch.
  • The Rangers scored 30 runs last night. Holy crap!
  • Paul Meyer of the Post-Gazette is reporting that Dan Duquette may be a candidate for the Pirates' CEO position. I will not claim to be an expert on Duquette's history, but he was an integral part of the Expos' rebuilding process in the early 90's. Those teams are one of the main reasons that the Expos remain my second favorite baseball team to this day. Vlad posted a detailed Dan Duquette history over at Bucs Dugout.
The Pirates finish their series in Denver today at 3:05 PM. Paul Maholm (4.53 ERA, 1.33 WHIP) throws against Franklin Morales (1.69 ERA, 0.94 WHIP).

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Armas, Pirates fall to Rockies

It has been a dismal 2007 season for Tony Armas - AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Tony Armas continues to show why he does not belong in the Pirates' rotation. Last night, Armas was charged with seven runs in 4.1 innings, allowed a grand slam and walked three. That left the Pirates with a 9-2 loss, and left Armas with an ERA of 7.08.

After the game, Jim Tracy was asked why Armas is still starting. His response? "I'd always be happy to have more people step up." I can see where the skipper is coming from on this one. The Pirates do not have much pitching depth right now. Shane Youman is the best choice, and he has been struggling as well. In fact he allowed two home runs in relief of Armas last night. Youman should be starting over Armas because he at least will still be around in 2008, but I am not sure how significant it is right now. Youman should be in Triple-A next year just as much as Armas should be wandering through the free agent market. Many people have been clamoring all season for Bryan Bullington to be called up, and it is not really a bad idea at this point in the season. But, despite his solid record and ERA, his K/BB ratio is 81/57 in 138.1 innings with Indianapolis. I would not expect much success from him at the Major League level. (Speaking of Bullington, he started for the Indians last night. After loading the bases with two walks and a double in the fourth, he served up a grand slam to one Chris Shelton. Indianapolis lost, 4-0.) John Van Benschoten and Sean Burnett are not options right now.

If you are looking for positives from last night, Nate McLouth continued his impression of Adrian Brown/Tike Redman/Chris Duffy with a long home run, a double and two runs scored. Will I be fooled again by a center fielder who takes over the starting job after the season is lost and excels? Yes. Yes I will. McLouth is making me feel much more comfortable about center field in 2008. I will never learn.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pirates win in 11

Josh Phelps ties the game - AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Last night Matt Morris delivered a strong start and the Pirates came from behind yet again, winning 4-2 in 11 innings. After delivering an extra-base hit in both pinch-hit appearances over the weekend, Matt Kata was rewarded with a start at third base. Batting second in the order, he tripled and scored in the first inning to give the Bucs a 1-0 lead. The Rockies were quiet until the fourth inning, when Todd Helton led off with a fly ball to right. Jose Bautista made the routine catch, but dropped the ball as he was removing it from his glove. It was incorrectly ruled a drop, and Helton was safe at second on the error. He later scored to tie the game. After a Troy Tulowitzki home run gave the Rockies the lead in the seventh, Matt Holliday singled. That knocked Morris from the game. John Grabow relieved him, and promptly threw a wild pitch. Helton then ripped a ball to right, and Bautista found redemption. He made a huge diving catch to end the inning and save a run.

The next inning, Josh Phelps pinch-hit for Grabow. Phelps continued his hot streak, drilling a 1-1 pitch into the left field seats to tie the game. After that, Shawn Chacon breezed through two perfect innings. Salomon Torres came on in the tenth and allowed a lead-off single to Tulowitzki. In my mind, the key play of the game followed. On a 2-2 pitch, Tulowitzki broke for second. A swing and a miss from Holliday, and Ronny Paulino fired to second. Freddy Sanchez picked the low throw and made the tag. The double play might have been the difference in this game. After a few tense minutes with Damaso Marte on the mound, the Pirates escaped to the 11th.

A walk, a sacrifice and a hit batsman later, and Sanchez was up with a chance to give the Pirates the lead. He delivered. Freddy's single to center plated Cesar Izturis, and the Bucs added an insurance run on an error later in the inning. Matt Capps came on and retired the side on eight pitches. Game.

It was nice to see Morris pitch well. He was far from dominant, but he made big pitches when he needed them. With the money invested in Morris, he is a lock to be in the rotation next season (barring injury or a huge collapse). I would feel much better entering the offseason if he could string together a few quality starts as the season winds down.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The bats

The Pirate hitters are having fun - AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

What happened to the Pirates' offense? Through the first four months of the season, the hitting was the largest factor in a season spiraling out of control. However, Pirate bats have caught fire in August. After battering the Phillies over the weekend, the team is hitting .304/.380/.513 as a whole during the month. That leaves them second in Major League Baseball with an .893 OPS. Their 129 runs scored are unmatched by any team. Here are some individual numbers:
  • Josh Phelps - .467/.571/.1000, 15 AB
  • Jack Wilson - .413/.500/.652, 46 AB
  • Freddy Sanchez - .373/.461/.560, 75 AB
  • Xavier Nady - .357/.438/.571, 14 AB
  • Adam LaRoche - .338/.400/.563, 71 AB
  • Nate McLouth - .297/.378/.578, 64 AB
  • Ryan Doumit - .300/.378/.525, 40 AB
  • Jose Bauista - .269/.383/.478, 67 AB
  • Ronny Paulino - .267/.323/.517, 60 AB
I guess it is true that hitting is contagious. The only thing remotely disappointing about that list is the ommision of Jason Bay's name. Bay's .661 OPS for the month is depressing. (By the way, I am convinced he is injured. He looks lost in every aspect of his game, and often is using only his arms when swinging. I don't know if it is his knee or another injury, but something definitely seems wrong with his lower body.)

However, the team's pitching has been lousy in August. While the team has scored the most runs in the month, it has allowed the third most. As always, the Pirates cannot match strong hitting with good pitching during the same period. Because of that, they are still struggling to win games.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Ronny Paulino and his struggles

Ronny Paulino has endured a disappointing second season - AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

There have been many frustrating occurrences in the Pirates’ 2007 season. Key players such as Jason Bay, Adam LaRoche and Zach Duke have underperformed. The signing of Tony Armas has been a bust. Drafting Daniel Moskos over Matt Wieters was ludicrous. Hanging on to Shawn Chacon, Damaso Marte and Salomon Torres at the trade deadline was likely a mistake. Committing over eight figures to Matt Morris will probably hurt us in 2008. It has been painful to watch the endless parade of Triple-A players (Don Kelly, John Wasdin, Jonah Bayliss, etc) marching through Pittsburgh. However, the most absurd thing we have seen this season has been Ronny Paulino’s unchanging batting stance. By far.

Last season, the most valuable aspect of Paulino’s hitting was his ability to get base hits to right field on pitches away. It was refreshing to see a smart approach while the majority of the team often attempted to pull everything. His front foot stepped very slightly toward third base during his swing, but it did not affect his ability to hit to the opposite field. However, Paulino altered his stance this season. Maybe he expected opposing pitchers to come inside more often, as a scouting report developed on him. He began using a more open stance. The results were disastrous. Paulino continued to step toward third despite the open stance, making it impossible for him to reach the outer half of the plate. Opposing pitchers quickly realized this, and began feeding him a steady diet of pitches away. Paulino could only flail at these pitches, and had no chance to hit the ball with any authority.

Fast forward to August 18. Paulino’s stance and swing have changed very little throughout the season. He has hit better in the past month or so (.278/.340/.474 since July 7), but he still cannot reach the outside corner. Last night, Paulino homered to right-center field. This should be encouraging. However, replays showed that the pitch was right over the heart of the plate. Paulino was forced to go the other way because that is as far as he can reach. Sure, it has been nice to see him produce more as of late. But unless he fixes his swing, this situation will get worse again before it gets any better.

There has been some discussion this season regarding hitting coach Jeff Manto’s performance. The debate is simple. How can you fairly judge a coach when he has little talent to work with? If you can blame him for the fall of players like Bay and LaRoche this season, then you can give him credit for Freddy’s 2006 season and the improved hitting of Doumit this year. Because of this, I prefer not to judge specialized coaches too harshly for team-wide problems. But Manto’s inability to fix Paulino’s stance over 120 games is a disgrace. This alone is enough evidence for him to be fired.

Gorzelanny struggles as Pirates lose

It was a rough night for Tom Gorzelanny and the Pirates - AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Tom Gorzelanny was shaky from the start tonight, and that eventually caught up to the Pirates. The Bucs allowed 10+ runs for the third consecutive game, falling to the Phillies by a score of 11-8. Gorzelanny was wild early, walking two in the first before escaping unscathed. Throughout the game, he relied heavily on his off-speed pitches. I would estimate that less than 20 of his 92 pitches touched 90 mph, and he topped out at about 92 mph. That is a few mph lower than we are used to seeing from Gorzo, which makes me nervous. After an early lead, the Pirates fell behind 9-3 as Philadelphia put up four runs in both the fifth and sixth innings. Behind home runs from Matt Kata, Ronny Paulino and Jose Bautista, the Bucs crawled back to 9-6 after eight. But Shawn Chacon allowed two runs in the ninth to put the game out of reach. Chacon has now allowed a run or an inherited runner to score in each of his past ten appearances, raising his ERA to 4.37. Good thing we held on to him at the deadline.

The Pirates, trailing 11-6 entering the bottom of the ninth inning, were able to scratch across two more runs before the final out. In that inning, Freddy Sanchez had one of the worst at-bats I have ever seen. It reminded me of an exhibition game for my high school team. Our coach became frustrated as players repeatedly took called third strikes. In anger, he ordered our hitters to swing at every single pitch, regardless of location. This only lasted a few batters, but it was an absolutely ridiculous thing to watch. This is what I thought of as I incredulously watched Freddy bat in the ninth. He swung at everything, and eventually grounded out on a pitch that was literally around his forehead. Four hours later, I am still perplexed.

Jason Bay looked terrible at the plate today, and horribly misplayed a fly ball in left to top things off. I have no words to explain what has happened to him this year. He looks absolutely clueless. It is depressing.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Pirates avoid sweep

Adam LaRoche gives the Pirates the lead - AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

The Pirates avoided a sweep at the hands of the Mets with a 10-7 victory last night. The team came from behind to win after Tony Armas handed New York a 5-0 lead by the third inning. The Bucs did not register a hit until the fourth, but that hit was an Adam LaRoche blast over the seats in right field. Ronny Paulino followed the two-run shot with an RBI double later in the inning, and the Pirates pulled within two. However, the Mets extended their lead to 7-3 the next inning.

From there, the Bucs began chipping away. A Jason Bay RBI single in the fifth, a Nate McLouth RBI double in the sixth, RBI singles from Bay and Jose Castillo in the seventh and the game was tied at seven. In the eighth, a David Wright throwing error allowed Freddy Sanchez to reach with two outs and the Pirates took advantage. LaRoche, Bay and Jose Bautista hit consecutive run-scoring singles, and Matt Capps retired the side in the ninth to preserve the victory.
  • Bay and LaRoche both hit well in the same game. We have not seen enough of that in 2007.
  • After the game, the Pirates promoted Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Dave Davidson to Triple-A Indianapolis. This is a curious move, as none of these three have been exactly dominant in Altoona. Walker started the season very strongly, but has cooled considerably in the second half. Overall, he is hitting a solid .288/.362/.462. McCutchen's season has been the exact opposite. He began 2007 in a LaRoche-esque slump, but has caught fire recently. Still his overall numbers are a disappointing .258/.327/.383. Davidson has posted a 4.22 ERA in 59.2 innings, with a decent K/BB ratio of 55/30 and a 1.24 WHIP. This was not a bad move by any means, it was just a bit unexpected.
  • Dejan reports that Jack Wilson has cleared waivers, meaning he can be traded up until August 31. Jair Jurrjens, who reportedly was discussed in the original trade talks with the Tigers in July, is now on Detroit's 40-man roster. The significance of this is that he would need to clear waivers to be traded, an event Dejan sees as unlikely. I do not have a thorough understanding of baseball's waiver rules, but I believe the waiver priority is determined by the current standings. The Pirates currently have the second worst record in Major League Baseball, ahead of only Tampa Bay. I believe that means that if the Devil Rays do not claim Jurrjens, the Pirates can. This would allow the trade to go through, similar to the situation with Brian Giles in 2003.

EDIT: Forget all this. The waiver priority is determined by league, meaning that each AL club would have a chance to claim Jurrjens before the Pirates.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Pirates lose, roster gets worse

The Pirates fell to the Mets last night, 5-4. The Bucs jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first against an erratic Orlando Hernandez, but were unable to pull away. Ian Snell allowed only three runs in seven innings, and left with the score tied. But the bullpen faltered in the eighth and the offense could not overcome the deficit in the bottom of the inning. Billy Wagner came on in the ninth and set the Bucs down in order to preserve the win.

After the game, the Pirates made some roster moves and somehow were able to make the team even worse. Ryan Doumit was placed on the disabled list due to a sprained wrist. Doumit has been one of the most consistent offensive producers for the Pirates in 2007, hitting .277/.344/.478 to this point. He has been the best hitter on the team not named Xavier. Also, the team designated Masumi Kuwata for assignment. Kuwata has been terrible this season, and it was time for him to go. He has an ERA of 9.43, a WHIP of 1.90, and has allowed at least one run in seven of his past ten appearances. He seemed like a great guy, though, so I wish him luck in the future.

To fill out the roster, the Pirates purchased the contracts of Matt Kata and Carlos Maldonado from Indianapolis. Kata hit .214/.214./.321 in 28 at-bats for the Pirates earlier in the season and .278/.338/.458 in 72 at-bats at Triple-A. I am not sure why Kata would be brought up over Michael Ryan, who has slugged .500 in Triple-A this season. Maldonado hit .105/.150/.105 in 19 at-bats for the Bucs in 2006 and has put up a line of .219/.325/.270 in 137 at-bats in Indianopolis. The catching depth in this organization is absolutely pathetic. I wish Humberto Cota was not hurt. Zach Duke was moved to the 60-day DL to make room on the 40-man roster.

By the way, Shawn Chacon has allowed at least one run in six of his past eight appearances. In those other two appearances, he allowed inherited runners to score. Good thing we did not deal him when he had some value. That would be silly.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Barry Bonds, in the eyes of a 23 year old Pirate fan

The Barry Bonds debate is just beginning - AP Photo/Richard Drew

As you all know, Barry Bonds passed Hank Aaron last week to become baseball's career home run king. Yesterday, he appeared in Pittsburgh for what could be the final time. Like many others, I have been thinking about him a bit this past week or so.

As is the case for many Pirate fans in their 20's, I have grown up with an extreme dislike for Bonds. I was at my most impressionable age when he played in Pittsburgh, and I was eight years old when he left as a free agent. As time has passed, I have never been able to put my finger on the exact reason for my disdain for Bonds. There are many possibilities. There were the postseason failures at the plate. There was the infamous throw that ended just far enough from home plate to ruin my favorite team. He left the team for more money. He was/is a jerk. And finally, there is the steroid issue.

I have come to forgive him for many of these transgressions. His struggles at the plate in those three playoff series are understandable when you consider a.) the caliber of pitching he faced, and b.) the small sample size. Also, his brilliant performance in the regular season was a huge factor in the success those teams enjoyed. On the Bream/Cabrera play, he made a strong effort to get the out. He got to the ball extremely quickly and immediately fired to the plate. The throw was a bit off the mark, but those things happen. The only thing I still hold against Barry on that play is that he allegedly ignored Andy Van Slyke right before the hit, when Van Slyke motioned for him to play shallow. But, of course, I do not know for sure that actually happened. Finally, I have come to realize that Bonds' departure from the team was inevitable. The Pirates did not want him back, and he was a superstar who left for his appropriate value. I can not judge him for that.

On the other hand, I can not forgive him for his personality. After slowly realizing everything in the previous paragraph, I still despise Bonds because he is an unpleasant person that considers himself to be more important than the rest of the world. But this post is not about my personal dislike for an individual player. I am here to talk about the saddest part of Barry Bonds' career.

Barry Bonds was an amazing player from the start. In his first season in Major League Baseball, the 21 year old Bonds had an OPS+ of 103 in 413 at-bats. The next year, it was 114. By the time he was 25, Bonds had hit 117 home runs, stolen 169 bases and had a career OPS+ of 132. Fast forward to 1998. Bonds finished that season with 403 doubles, 63 triples, 411 home runs, 1,357 walks, 445 stolen bases, a batting line of .290/.411/.556 and an OPS+ of 163. He was one of the best players in the game, and many believed he would be considered one of the greatest ever by the time he was finished.

But that is when this story took a turn for the worst. After the 1998 season, Bonds wanted more. He allegedly began a powerful steroid regimen and went from superstar to superhuman. We all know about the mind-blowing numbers he put up in the years approaching his 40th birthday and beyond.

How would the career of Barry Bonds progressed if allowed to do so in a natural fashion? We will never know. Most likely, he would have gone down as one of the greatest baseball players the world has ever seen. Instead, a career that statistically is in the top five in history will be scrutinized and debated for generations. That is the real tragedy in this story.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Pirates erase late deficit, defeat Giants

Play of the game - Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

This game was progressing as one might expect. Barry Bonds had homered. Matt Morris could not keep Rajai Davis off the bases, allowing him to score four runs. The Pirates were close early in the game, but slowly the Giants' lead grew to 6-2. Now it was the top of the eighth, and it was easy to see how the final two innings would proceed. The Pirates’ offense would go down quietly, and the only relevant question remaining would be whether the bullpen would let things get out of control.

But the Pirates did not concede. Adam LaRoche, Jason Bay, Ryan Doumit and Ronny Paulino singled in succession to start the eighth inning. After a Jack Wilson sacrifice fly, the Giants’ lead was suddenly only 6-5. A gimpy Xavier Nady pinch-hit and reached on an error. Nate McLouth ripped a double off the wall in right and the game was tied. Jose Bautista deflated Pirate fans everywhere when he made his 33rd unproductive out of the game. But Freddy Sanchez poked a single to center on the first pitch he saw, and the Pirates had taken an 8-6 lead.

The Giants had a chance to tie the game in the bottom of the inning. With one run in, Paulino’s lame attempt to block a ball in the dirt moved runners to second and third with one out. Red-hot Rajai Davis was at the plate with the tying run at third. The stage was set for Davis to fittingly burn his former team. But Bautista made a fabulous play on Davis’ slow chopper to third, cutting down the run at the plate. Salomon Torres struck out Omar Vizquel, and the Pirates went to the ninth with the lead.

With one on in the ninth, Ryan Klesko was at the plate representing the winning run. I cringed as Matt Capps grooved the first pitch right down the middle. But the ball had just enough movement on it that Klesko popped it straight up in the air for the second out. Capps struck out Bengie Molina and the game was over. Pirates win 8-7.

This was a solid win for the Bucs, one that sends you to bed at 2 AM with a smile on your face. Some thoughts:

  • Matt Morris was lousy. He walked five guys, did not strike out a batter, and was terrorized all night by Rajai Davis. Very appropriate.
  • Bonds and Davis killed us at the plate in this game, but each humorously misplayed fly balls as well. Watching those ugly attempts put a smile on my face, if only for a moment.
  • Huge hit by Sanchez in the eighth. The Giants had just taken some momentum when Bautista’s groundout failed to score a run, but Freddy wasted no time in giving the Bucs the lead.
  • It was nice to see Bautista make the game-saving play at third in the bottom of that inning. He was clearly frustrated after failing to produce a run during the Pirate rally, and immediately making up for it in the field likely allowed him to rest a bit easier last night. Also, Paulino made a great tag on the play. This was immediately after he allowed a wild pitch to skip past him.
  • I guess Xavier Nady is not going on the DL. It has been over a week since he re-injured his hamstring, and he has been limited to three pinch-hit appearances during that period. With the team already down to four bench players, this really limits what Jim Tracy can do with his lineup. I have no idea why the Pirates like to keep injured players on the active roster for extended periods, regardless of whether they are able to play. Wait, maybe it is because Brad Eldred is the only uninjured position player available on the 40-man roster. Who is in charge around here?
  • Steve Pearce went 2 for 4 with a double yesterday for Triple-A Indianapolis. He is now hitting .375/.444/.725 with four home runs in 40 at-bats with the Indians. He is clearly on pace to reach Pittsburgh very soon.
Tony Armas (6.31 ERA, 1.62 WHIP) goes against Tim Lincecum (3.59 ERA, 1.29 WHIP) early this evening. Armas very well may be auditioning for a job. First pitch is at 3:55 PM.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Maholm, Pirates defeated

The Pirates fell to the Diamondbacks last night by a score of 10-6. Paul Maholm was shaky, as was the bullpen. Adam LaRoche had a big day at the plate, going 4 for 5 with a double. I saw very little of this game, so I will not try to provide any analysis. Here is a link to the Post Gazette's recap.

Tonight Ian Snell (3.91 ERA, 1.30 WHIP) goes for the Bucs, Doug Davis (3.88 ERA, 1.58 WHIP) for the D-Backs. Gametime is 9:40 PM.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Gorzo shines in return

Tom Gorzelanny makes a successful return from injury - AP Photo/Matt York

On September 16, 2006, I went to PNC Park for a game between the Pirates and the first-place Mets. The Mets were one win away from clinching the NL East. On the hill for the Bucs was Tom Gorzelanny, making his first start in just over a month due to an arm injury. Gorzo went four innings, allowing just one run on four hits and leaving after throwing 72 pitches. The Pirates eventually won 3-2 on Ronny Paulino's ninth inning double. The gutty performance from the rookie Gorzelanny helped the Bucs sweep the Mets and keep them from clinching in Pittsburgh.

Fast forward to August 7, 2007. Gorzelanny has enjoyed a brilliant second season, and currently is one of the National League's top left-handers. Last night he made his first start in about two weeks due to shoulder stiffness. Again, he pitched very well in his return from injury. He went seven innings, allowing two runs on four hits, striking out nine and walking two. For his effort, he was rewarded with his tenth victory of the season, as the Bucs won 8-3. Jack Wilson and Ronny Paulino continued their recent mini-surges at the plate to lead the offense.

One knock against Gorzelanny has been poor mental toughness. But to be quite honest, I don't see it. The two times he has missed time due to injury in the Majors, he has responded with a strong outing in his return. Just over a year ago, he faced the Cubs in his hometown of Chicago, his first professional appearance there. With countless friends and family in attendance, Gorzo threw eight shutout innings and allowed only two hits. He had a terrible spring in Bradenton this season, but shrugged it off and has been tremendous since the team came north to Pittsburgh. Finally, he has dealt with poor run support all year. In Gorzelanny's six losses this season, the Pirates have scored a total of six runs. In five of those games, they have scored one run or less. That is quite a burden to put on a young pitcher, but Gorzo has handled it calmly. I have no concerns about his mentality on the mound.

The play of the game was made in the seventh inning. With the Pirates leading 4-2, one on and nobody out, Chris Snyder yanked Gorzelanny's 1-2 pitch deep to left. Jason Bay, who was the subject of this article in Tuesday's PG, headed back toward the wall. On this play, Bay looked about as comfortable as I have seen him all season. He leaped at the fence and pulled Snyder's home run back. He capped it off by throwing a laser to second for the double play. Gorzelanny ended the inning on the next pitch, and the Pirates held their two-run lead. Bay has taken quite a bit of grief for his defense this season. It was nice to see him make such a huge play.

(Off the topic a bit: I have always felt that Bay's largest flaw regarding his throwing arm is poor mechanics. He rarely gets his entire body into a throw, which usually results in a Little League style toss. He definitely got more on this throw as he seemed to have more momentum moving toward second after bouncing off the wall. My question is, who do we blame for this? The coaching staff for not fixing the problem? Bay for being a Major League Baseball player, but not knowing how to crow-hop? Dave Littlefield? Tony Randazzo? I'm not sure.)

The Diamondbacks defense was terrible in this game. What was Micah Owings doing when he fielded a routine comebacker, jumped into the air and launched the ball into right field? Has Chris Young ever seen a fly ball? I almost thought the ninth inning was a dream. I believe it was about midnight, and 19 hours awake was beginning to catch up with me. I dozed, woke briefly, dozed again, and so on. Repeatedly, I woke to Lanny's voice rising to say, "...and the throw gets away! [Insert name of Pirate player] scores on the play!" It seemed like the D-Backs made five errors in the inning (I see now they only made two. Weird.). If this is how you get to first place, maybe the Pirates are not that far away.

Tonight, it is Paul Maholm (4.50 ERA, 1.34 WHIP) throwing against Byung-Hyun Kim (4.63 ERA, 1.57 WHIP). Gametime is 9:40 PM.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Pirates at DiamondBacks

The Pirates are in Arizona for a late one tonight. Tom Gorzelanny (3.55 ERA, 1.29 WHIP)throws for the Pirates with Micah Owings (4.91 ERA, 1.49 WHIP) going for the D-Backs, a rematch from this debacle in May. First pitch is scheduled for 9:40 PM.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Weekend update

Postponed - AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Another weekend, a little rain, and a couple more losses for the Pirates. I did not get a chance to watch much the past few days, but here are a few thoughts:
  • Apparently the Pirates knew what they were doing when they traded for Matt Morris. His 2.333 OPS is highest on the team. And I was upset that we did not acquire any offense at the deadline.
  • Ian Snell has officially scared the hell out of Pirate fans. Suddenly, he is not the pitcher he once was.
  • Jeff Keppinger is hitting .333/.387/.522 for an OPS of .908. It doesn't mean anything, but it is interesting to think about.
  • Matt Capps is still on the team.
  • Is anyone paying attention to the Pirates' roster? We currently have three backup infielders, zero backup catchers, and the only backup outfielder is limited to pinch-hitting duty due to a bad hamstring. Nobody panic though, we have six starting pitchers on the team. Now who said the Pirates do a poor job of planning?

The Pirates are off today as they travel to Phoenix for a three-game series with the Diamondbacks.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Pirates take series on Castillo's single

It was a rollercoaster of a series for Ronny Paulino. In the first game, his defensive miscues were a large factor in the Pirates' 6-4 loss. He rebounded quickly the next night, with a grand slam in the first inning. He added a single and the Pirates won big, 15-1. Today, he doubled in the fifth to start a three-run Pirates rally that tied the game. An inning later, his solo home run gave the Pirates the lead. With the game tied in the bottom of the 11th inning, Paulino came to the plate with runners at first and second and nobody out. He was asked to bunt, and the Cardinals were ready. With first baseman Albert Pujols sprinting towards the plate, Paulino pulled his bat back to swing and took ball one. On the second pitch, Pujols again stormed forward. This time, Paulino followed through with his instructions. He bunted the ball directly to Pujols, who fired to third for the force out. The relay to first beat Paulino, and the Pirates' rally was shut down by a double play. Ryan Doumit now stood at second base with two outs, and Jim Tracy sent Jose Castillo to the plate to pinch-hit for Salomon Torres. Castillo was the final position player available, and with only John Grabow and Jonah Bayliss left in the bullpen, I was getting nervous.

But I should not have worried. After quickly falling behind 0-2, Castillo lined one into right-center. Adam Kennedy's throw was a few feet up the first base line, and Ryan Doumit scored standing up to win the game. At that point, those of us in attendance had the pleasure of watching the Pirates mob Castillo near the pitcher's mound. My favorite part of a walk-off win is seeing the players gleefully celebrating like small children. The innocence of the scene is indescribably wonderful.

Shane Youman is quickly becoming one of my favorite players. Today, he did exactly what he always seems to do. He was not spectacular, but he went five innings, allowed three runs, and kept the team in the game. There is something enjoyable about watching him go to the mound, throw below average stuff at Major League hitters, and be effective. He just might be the perfect number five starter.

The Pirates took two out of three from the Cardinals. You can't argue with that right now.

Pirates cruise, end losing streak

It was all smiles for Tony Armas and the Pirates on Wednesday night - AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

As we approached the trade deadline, I felt we needed hitting. Dave Littlefield apparently felt we needed a #5 starting pitcher. Were we both wrong?

Well, probably not. But the Pirates needed very little tonight, as they pounded the Cardinals by a score of 15-1. It was not just the score that made this game so ironic. It was the way in which it was won. It was as if someone took all the problems of 2007 and flipped them upside down. Tony Armas Jr. was brilliant, continuing a recent trend. After allowing one run in 6.1 innings, Armas has now allowed only one run in 12 July innings. Maybe he is finally figuring things out.

The offense exploded for 15 runs on 20 hits. Keeping the irony alive, Ronny Paulino led the offense with a first inning grand slam. The rest of the lineup also produced a tremendous amount of support for Armas.

I am falling asleep as I type this, so I think it is time for bed. I will be at the game tomorrow afternoon, and it is possible that I will provide some updates from PNC Park. I am not promising anything, but I may post a few thoughts for those stuck at work during the game.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Pirates add Morris, lose again

Matt Morris is now a Pirate - Nam Y. Huh, AP Photo

Yesterday, the Pirates traded back-up centerfielder Rajai Davis and a player to be named later to the Giants for veteran starter Matt Morris. Where should I begin? I think I will tell a story.

Let's start before the 2006 season. The Pirates sign/trade for Jeromy Burnitz (2006 stats-.230/.289/.422, 2006 salary-$6 Million), Joe Randa (.267/.316/.388, $4 million), Sean Casey (.289/.354/.381, $8.5 million) and Roberto Hernandez (2.93 ERA 1.63 WHIP, $2.75 million ). Overall, that is approximately $21.25 million* for a decent reliever and three below average position players. Burnitz and Randa were on the bench by the halfway point and retired after the season, while Casey and Hernandez were traded at the deadline.

Fast forward to June 2006. The Pirates have absolutely no catching depth in the organization. Zero prospects. The only true catcher on the 40-man roster is producing below replacement-level results, while playing poor defense. With the fourth overall pick in the amateur draft, the Pirates pass on top catching prospect Matt Wieters and choose college pitcher Daniel Moskos, who projects as a reliever in the Major Leagues. Most likely, the expected $10 million signing bonus for Wieters discouraged the Pirates from drafting him. They signed Moskos for a $2.475 million bonus.

Now it is July 31, 2007. Major League Baseball's trade deadline is at 4:00 PM EST. Many teams are looking for bullpen help, and most are overpaying to acquire it. The Pirates possess some of the better available relievers in Damaso Marte, Shawn Chacon and Salomon Torres. With a team batting line of .251/.311/.385, the team is ranked 26th in AVG, 30th in OBP and 28th in SLG. The team is in a good position to deal some relievers and add something to a lineup that desperately needs it.

However, the Pirates went a different route. Apparently, they spent most of the day trying to work out a deal that would send Jack Wilson to the Tigers and remove some of his salary from their payroll. As 4:00 approached and the two teams had yet to work out an agreement, Dave Littlefield apparently panicked. He suddenly joined the negotiations for Morris and agreed to do what no other team would, absorb all of his salary. In the end, the Pirates will pay Morris $15.7 million at the very least.

In Morris, the Pirates are receiving a mediocre to below-average pitcher who will eat some innings. It won't hurt to have a veteran presence in a young rotation, and the team did not give up much to acquire Morris. But that is not the issue. We hear quite a bit about how the Pirates will not spend what is necessary to compete, and that is true. But the bigger problem is the poor decisions the Pirates make when they do spend money. They have paid Burnitz, Randa, Casey, and Hernandez approximately $21.25 million* and will pay Morris $15.7 million (a total of almost $37 million of nearly worthless spending), but refuse to spend any money on top draft picks. As a result, they have one of the worst farm systems in the league and a lousy Major League club.

Another problem with this deal is the fact that the team desperately needs hitting. The Pirates are not losing because Tony Armas is having a lousy year as the fifth starter. They are losing because only one player has an OPS over .800 on the season. That is absolutely terrible. Littlefield ignored his most glaring need and also ignored his most valuable trade bait (bullpen). That is a great method to use in order to better the team. This trade was made as if we are one veteran pitcher away from competing. Does anyone watching this team actually believe that?

By the way, the Pirates lost to the Cardinals last night. Ronny Paulino nearly caused me to punch a hole in the wall, and Xavier Nady left the game with a hamstring problem. Albert Pujols caused that injury by faking that a throw was coming as Nady returned to first after a flyout to center in the fourth. Nady lunged for the bag, stretching his hamstring farther than it could be stretched. If I were in charge, Pujols would be watching out for his ribs each time he comes to the plate tonight. But of course, I am just a pissed off Pirate fan.

*This amount was actually lower, as the Reds picked up a small portion of Casey's contract and the Pirates saved money when they dealt Casey and Hernandez on July 31.