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.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Another Pittsburgh Pirates Five Minutes of Failure Video

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the second consecutive Five Minutes of Failure video. Had I thought of doing these a week ago, this could be the fourth in five games. That's right: the Pittsburgh Pirates are 1 and 5 on this, their first home stand of the season. The good will that surrounded this team last Thursday is long gone, and it has indeed become difficult to believe that it was ever here in the first place.

The Pirates' only home win so far has come in the extra-extra-innings win this past Friday, and that was anything but a decisive victory. However, this team has managed to have several decisive losses, and the latest one just ended. The Brewers got themselves six runs, in comparison to the Pirates' zero runs. Much like a cavity or an ingrown hair, the surface appearance of this loss belies how grisly it truly was.

As failures go, however, this was a pretty educational one. The respective performances of the Brewers and the Pirates this evening provide some clues as to what the Pirates need to do in order to start winning some ball games.

Both teams went four full innings without a hit until their respective starting pitchers got themselves in a little trouble.

In the bottom of the fifth inning, Brewers pitcher Shaun Marcum gave up a leadoff single to Pirates first baseman Lyle Overbay. Matt Diaz, who after tonight is still hitting only .263, immediately followed with a single to put runners on first and second with zero outs. At this point, it is not unreasonable to expect that you might see some RBIs before the end of said inning. However, neither Alvarez, Doumit nor Cedeno were even able to so much as advance the runners, and Marcum exited the inning unscathed.

In the very next inning, Pirates pitcher Kevin Correia ran into a similar kind of trouble and was not nearly so lucky as Shaun Marcum. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy hit a leadoff double, which also happened to be his first hit of the season. Shaun Marcum was next up, and managed to get on first with a bunt bobbled by Correia. Now the Pirates are screwed; Correia is facing the top of the Brewers batting order with two runners on base and no outs. The Brewers batting order is a force to be reckoned with, and sure enough, he got thumped for four runs.

Having two on and no outs with the top of the batting order at the plate is of course more of a threat than two on and no outs with your sixth batter at the plate. However, if you cannot manage to get at least one run in that situation, you will not deserve to win the ball game, even in the unlikely event that you somehow manage to do so. If one could assign errors to the offense, this would certainly earn one.

The lesson to be learned from contrasting these two innings really has nothing to do with quantity of runs, nor with the respective offensive abilities of the next three batters. A bunt and a sacrifice fly should be pretty much expected, especially when going against a team that will knock you out in the blink of an eye.

What this loss indicates is a team that has yet to coalesce into a productive unit. The losing atmosphere that Hurdle promised to erase seems to have crept back into the hearts and minds of the Pittsburgh Pirates in a big way, and all of Clint Hurdle's charisma isn't going to get consistently good at-bats. Shaun Marcum's single is the kind of thing a winning team does: he knew that Correia was on a roll, and that they had to maximize their opportunity. Pitcher or no, he did just that.

Where do we go now? I don't know about you, but tomorrow I'm going to Altoona to see the Curve season opener at Blair County Ballpark. Tony Sanchez and Starling Marte: the future that can't come a moment too soon.

The Video!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Five Minutes of Failure: A Pirates Loss Sped Up

I am going to be trying something new today. Rather than post photos of a loss that was really rather unpleasant, I instead decided to take the 3300+ photos I typically shoot at a baseball game and turn them into a slideshow. An extremely fast sideshow. Now, you can watch today's game in a little over five action packed minutes. Watch as the grueling 38-pitch 4-run first inning speeds by at speeds that lift a weight off your chest. Maybe in August when you think back to the beginning of the season, you will remember this video instead of the game itself and be a slightly happier person for it.

I will only be doing these for the losses, of course. I mean hey-wading through that many photos for the most beautiful moments of a loss slowly wears on you. I'm doing this for my sanity.

But first, a brief word or two about today's loss to the Rockies: watching James McDonald receive a standing ovation as he headed for the dugout after 6 and two thirds of an inning was truly heartwarming, and oh so completely unexpected after his disastrous first inning. I expect McDonald to struggle a bit this year; it's his first season as a starting pitcher, and one who is expected to be no less than the ace of the pitching staff. McDonald's ability to mentally recover from the first inning and turn in a solid performance from the second inning onward is indicative of a mature mind, and one that I feel is capable of adjusting to the new set of expectations placed on him.

I will also say this: it is a shame to see the bullpen give us over 11 scoreless innings in Friday's epic win only to see them blow the next two games at least partially as a result of fatigue. Of course, having Meek as the 8th inning pitcher could have still earned us these wins regardless and the hole in the bullpen left by his absence cannot be understated. I hope this is not the last time we see .500 or above this season, but even if it is, I do expect things to nevertheless go better for the Pirates this season as opposed to the last.

A few final notes about this video:

-Is the quality bad? Yes. These are unedited photos shot by a still camera. Various people's heads block the edges of certain frames, the exposure jumps around, it is biased towards showing the Pirates, etc. But it is, in its own way, absolutely mesmerizing. Enjoy.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

I Don't Care if I Never Get Back? Pirates Win in Epic Fashion

As I write this, it is 1:30 pm on the day after the Pirates' 4-3 win over the Colorado Rockies, and I am still very tired. Every couple words or so, I find myself glancing at the clock on the top right corner of my laptop screen, eagerly anticipating 2 p.m. and the possibility of going back to sleep for an hour or so.

I can only imagine how the players feel right about now. Superior athletic conditioning or no, when a game lasts five and a half bone-chilling April evening hours, it takes something out of you.

Fortunately, whatever is taken out of you is in this case replaced with a degree of restored hope in the 2011 Pirates, especially after Thursday's grueling loss.

Last night's game had one huge negative: Ross Ohlendorf appears to be injured once again, and the injury is apparently very similar to the one that ended his 2010 season early. Until recently, Ohlendorf's story was about a gifted-yet-star-crossed pitcher whose ascension was long overdue. Another injury and early-season trip to the DL15, however, and that story will begin to change.

In Ohlendorf's stead, however, Neil Huntington had an opportunity to show us just how good he truly is at cobbling together amazing bullpens year after year. 11.1 consecutive scoreless innings in hand-numbing weather is something to be proud of. Also: Karstens is back, and just as handy as ever.

As I write this, I cannot help but acknowledge how easily I could be writing a miserable post about the second Pirates loss at home to start the season and how it managed to be even more disappointing than the home opener. At times last night, it looked like this was an inevitability. However, Jose Tabata stepped up and became the hero of the night, and gifted us all with a Saturday morning full of good baseball vibes. This is significant: only too often has this team failed to produce that hero in situations comparable to last night's. I don't know how much things have changed for the Pirates at this point, but it is at the very least undeniable that changes are taking place: we now have quite a few starting players who can reasonably be replied upon to be the hero of a game, and they are only going to get better at doing so.

Jaramillo was a pleasure to watch as last night's starting catcher. His defensive aggressiveness was a nice change of pace. Here we see him trying to pick off a baserunner.
Not a happy look.

How many games would we have lost last season without this guy? Being a long relief pitcher for the Pirates is a dirty job, but Karstens is the one to do it.

Pedro after catching a pop up to the edge of the left field stands.

Jose Veras apparently roars as the stuff of pitching excellence flows through his veins.
I second this gesture, Veras.
A still from Joel Hanrahan's new closer video. Slipknot thankfully left to the imagination.
Steve Pearce heads to the dugout after yet another successful pinch hit. This guy deserves a start.
Chris Resop, who has recently struggled, pitched three redeeming innings. It was not pretty; he got himself into multiple jams, but he also managed to get out of them.
The extremely rare 14th Inning Stretch.
Thanks to Jose Tabata for grinding out a win in a game that had Andrew McCutchen going hitless.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Pittsburgh Pirates Opening Day Streaker: A Story in Pictures

When the goofy bastard that you're about to see began to gallop through the outfield late in the Pirates 7-1 loss yesterday, I was elated because he actually provided enjoyable content for today's post.

There are tons of places you can go to if you want to hear about what a letdown yesterday's game was. What kind of exposition is needed in order to drive home the disappointment of losing 7-1 in front of PNC Park's second-largest crowd in its history? These simple facts speak for themselves. Frankly, I am not going to bother. Or rather, I am, but only a little.

I personally would prefer losing the home opener to being, say, 0-7 right now. I remain thankful because the Pirates still have a lot of positives going for them at present. The exciting potential of the batting order, the surprisingly-effective starting pitching, and the notion that maybe Clint Hurdle's "Yes We Can"-isms are going to hold water. The longevity of some of these positives can be called into question, but when one contemplates what the last few seasons have been like and considers how little has to happen comparatively in order to come away from this season feeling that the Pirates are headed in the right direction, it really seems like a reasonable expectation.

So we lost the home opener. Look at it this way: when was the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates' road record was better than their home record?

The beginning of the Pirates' problems. A Neil Walker error in the first inning, and suddenly the entirety of PNC Park felt like Bugs Bunny walking ten feet off the edge of a cliff before looking down.

Walker drives in our only run.

Overbay gets a difficult out at first.
Paul Maholm sees the humor in things.

A few additional positives came late in the game: Steve Pearce got his first base hit of the season.
New relief pitcher Mike Crotta also continued to be very good. He has yet to give up a hit in a regular season game.

And now....It is my pleasure to present....the Opening Day Streaker.

I like seeing Jones crack up at this.

The not-so-artful dodger.

He got a solid round of applause from a PNC Park crowd starved for excitement by this point in the game. I hope he wasn't too drunk to remember it, because its one of the few things from which he might derive some amount of comfort right about now.
Coming to a hillside cleanup near you.