Monday, May 9, 2011

Pittsburgh Pirates: Baby Steps Towards Glory

When I think of how a genuinely-good baseball team functions, I think of a car engine. This isn't to say that I know anything about car engines, really, save for this one tidbit that may have come from "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" or Drivers' Ed, or maybe just some science class: "A car engine's power is generated by a series of controlled explosions".

A good baseball team (or, really, any sports team) can be recognized by its individual components heating up until a synchronicity is achieved, at which point the whole thing begins to work together. And, as with a car engine, that's when you can begin to get to places.

The Pirates and their fans have endured a prolonged period of attempts at starting this team's engine, and the subsequent wringing of hands over which components are faulty. And what can be done to replace them.

I know this victory of reaching .500 is something to move past, a mile marker on the road to the ultimate goal of winning another world series. However, a game like yesterday, while far from perfect, indicates that the Pirates are getting closer to finally turning the engine over.

Neil Walker gestures victoriously to the fans as he returns to the dugout at the game's close. I found this to be a pretty touching moment; long before he was a professional baseball player, he was a Pittsburgh-area resident from a baseball family who wanted nothing more than to see his home town team get back on track. When Neil raised his hands in victory at the end of this ball game, he did so as a fan every bit as much as he did a ball player.
James McDonald had a terrific game, tying his record of 8 strikeouts, and lasting six innings. He did not get the W, but his pitching made it possible.
Steve Pearce played his ass off, going head-first into the stands and diving into an impromptu somersault while chasing pop-ups. In addition, he got himself a walk, a hit, an RBI, and a run.
Tabata walks.
Tabata got caught in a rundown following a pickoff that stranded him between bases. One of the great things about this kind of victory is that you hear next to nothing about stuff like this.
Pearce splits and keeps his foot on the bag. I love watching him do this stuff; last season, before his injury, he busted out this move in at least one home game .
Doumit watches as his hit turns into a 3-rbi home run.

Doumit getting this hit is absolutely perfect. No batter has been here longer (and no player, aside from Maholm), and his time here has been all too frequently plagued by injuries that have caused many to count him out. Despite this, he has hung in there and refused to let ego get to him. This was also apparently his fiftieth career home run, which is spooky awesome.
Now this would have been a fantastic photo that perfectly encapsulates the feeling at PNC Park after the win, but look who had to ruin the damn thing!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Why .500 Matters

Recently, Clint Hurdle went on record decrying the significance of the Pirates managing to be a .500 team after the month of April or the early days of May. As quoted in Dejan Kovacevic's recently Post-Gazette article: ""I can't control what people think, but we're doing things here that are aimed at a championship, not .500." Of course, Hurdle has to say this, and most likely has to think it as well in order to be an effective manager. As Kovacevic mentions in the article, .500 seems to be a wholly unattainable goal for this team, regardless of its significance, and it's still very easy to ridicule a team for whom such an achievement is a big deal.

Make no mistake, however: for this team, managing to get back to .500, even for a game, is a very big deal. I believe I am actually paraphrasing ex-manager John Russell here, but the true goal behind reaching .500 is putting that period of a team's existence as far in the past as possible. It's far from a pennant, and if it's the only thing the Pirates achieve in the next five years, the result will still be disastrous.

But let's be honest: in the hearts of its fans and Pittsburgh-area sportswriters, the Pirates get evaluated based on a different sort of criteria as a result of the team's immensely-long losing streak.

Allow me to present an extended analogy: If you see someone drowning who manages to get their arm around a life preserver, it is a tremendous victory within this context; after all, they are no longer going to drown. They now stand a decent chance of living.

On the other hand, if this individual stays in the water clinging to a life preserver for the next ten years, this victory's significance largely dissipates. It ultimately becomes a wasted possibility; a glimmer of hope that never became anything more.

However, the possibility of rescue never even comes into existence if the drowning man, well, drowns.

.500 is significant for this team because reaching it goes a long ways towards vanquishing the atmosphere of defeat that Hurdle described as the team's biggest obstacle way back in February. It is a step that one hopes to move past, but it is a step nonetheless.

And now, onto the pictures. Due to the extended camera-killing downpour in the middle of the game, I have decided to skip doing the Five Minutes of Failure video this time.
Superstition will take you to some mighty strange places.

Hurdle argues a stolen base.
Maholm prepares for a rundown.
And Brandon Wood gets his man.
Searage and Snyder leave the pitching mound after a discussion with Maholm during one of several jams he got himself into.
He nevertheless managed to get out of it with one run. This game could have easily been 7-2.
McCutchen reacts to being left on second base. Many people complained about Hurdle's decision to have McCutchen bunt, but with his current batting average, I can understand Hurdle's decision far more readily than, say, having Pedro Alvarez attempt a sacrifice bunt.
The strike zone was in a seemingly-constant state of flux in this game. Snyder reacts to a called strike that very much looked like it was outside. Come on, ump; we don't need any more challenges.
The umpire attempts to field a foul ball.

Neil Walker continues to produce, in stark contrast to far too many others.

Verras may have a formidable pitching face, but this was his second consecutive bad appearance.
And last but not least: Brett Wallace's simply confounding photo.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Altoona Curve: Light at the End of the Tunnel

Several years ago, I invented the word Nascempecious (pronounced Nah-Sem-Pee-Shuss). Nascempecious describes anything that goes very badly, exactly as you expected it would. Right now, the Pirates' season is very nascempecious.

Fortunately for my sanity, however, Altoona, Pennsylvania is not too far away. When the Pirates' numerous shortcomings gets a little too much to bear, I can head east to a ballpark in the mountains where it's always that last hour before sundown when everything is slightly golden. There is a roller coaster over the right field wall, parking is only $3, the cheese burgers make you want to sing songs, and there is this extra component to the atmosphere that you suddenly realize has been missing from most of those Pirates games. That's right: there is genuine hope in the air.

Last year, the Altoona Curve won the Eastern League Championship for the first time in their history as a result of terrific pitching from starting pitchers like Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson, Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, and Michael Dubee, as well as closer Daniel Moskos. At this eaerly stage in their season, it would appear that the Curve is poised to make another run at the championship, with Dubee, Hughes, Locke and Morris being joined by Brian Leech, Noah Krul, Mike Colla, and Aaron Thompson.

In addition, several big bats are making their AA debut this year: catcher Tony Sanchez, outfielders Quincy Latimore and Starling Marte, and infielder Brock Holt. Many feel that the Pirates won't truly be in contention until Sanchez and Marte in particular are playing on the major league team; just having these guys playing baseball in the state of Pennsylvania is a source of considerable excitement.

Last night, Aaron Thompson pitched the Curve home opener against the Richmond Flying Squirrels in spectacular fashion, giving up only two hits and one walk through six innings. Thompson threw tons of swing-and-miss pitches, and it was truly a sight to behold. I don't think I've seen the pitcher of the team I'm rooting for have such a spectacular game since James McDonald made his first start for the Pirates last season. The Curve ultimately blanked the Flying Squirrels, winning by a score of 2-0 thanks to a Jordy Mercer solo home run and a Miles Durham double that drove in Tony Sanchez. The Curve accumulated 8 total hits for a decisive victory; it's only the second win I've attended this season, and the resulting happiness and pride in my team was like manna from heaven.

After the game, my dad and I drove back to Pittsburgh as we listened to the Pirates trying to score their first run in like 17 innings while trailing the Brewers 2-0. Ultimately, Brewers relief pitcher Jon Axford threw a wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth inning, which allowed Andrew McCutchen to score. We can now safely say that Axford has become the most productive part of the Pirates offense in those 17+ scoreless innings, a cruelly humorous reality that should ring familiar to any follower of this team. We listened with a sense of cool detachment, however, for we had just seen a win for this organization, and with it, a glimpse of the bright future that lies ahead.

Catcher Tony Sanchez before the game.
Backup Catcher Kris Watts.
Steamer, one of the three Curve mascots, interacts with the youth marching band that played the National Anthem at the game's start.
(From left: Brock Holt, Starling Marte, Jordy Mercer, Tony Sanchez, Miles Durham and Quincy Latimore)
Aaron Thompson pitching.

Bryan Morris manning the pitching gun from the stands.
Tony Sanchez slides home off of a Durham double.

Starling Marte in the on-deck circle.
Tony Sanchez on first following a hit.

In AA, they go just a little further with the non-baseball entertainment, as seen here.
RP Mike Colla.
Marte gets caught in a rundown.
RP Michael Dubee

Third Baseman Jeremy Farrell
AA Mascots toss candy into the crowd.
Closing pitcher Noah Krol's unique pitching mechanics.

Sanchez and Krol shake hands following the three-hit shutout.