August 23 @ Atlanta Braves

The Bucs were able to string together two victories in a row to win their series against the Braves, and baseball analysts everywhere are calling the two road wins surprising, rare, and unexpected.  Pittsburgh is notorious for playing poorly in Atlanta, and the 2006 Pirates have performed terribly away from PNC Park.  A lot of fans didn’t see a series win at Turner Field coming, and most probably thought it impossible for the Bucs to go into someone else’s house and do anything of merit.  Most.  Not all.

Jake over at Bucco Blog is filled with the same unbridled enthusiasm about this squad as I am, I do believe.  Maybe you think we’re bonkers, but I think I might be able to explain our reasoning (or at the very least mine).  How does anyone think a team with a 49-78 record could have a bright outlook on the future?

Let’s face it, the Bucs are the second youngest team in the bigs.  Most of these guys were in diapers when the Pirates stunk up the 1980s and were playing little league ball when Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, and Andy van Slyke led the Pirates to division crowns in the early 1990s.  Do you really think that Ian Snell and Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez and Mike Gonzalez give a hoot about how a bunch of crummy teams lost a ton of games in Atlanta over the past decade?  They’re probably only aware of the fact that the Bucs underachieve against the Braves if they read Dejan or Rob Rossi with their morning coffee.  It’s not like Jim Tracy’s in the clubhouse giving history lessons.  What would surprise me is if more than half of our 25-man roster could name ten former Pirates outside of Wagner, Traynor, Maz, Pops, Parker, Roberto, Bonds, Drabek, Kendall, Giles, and Schmidt.  Winning a series in Atlanta–that doesn’t surprise me.

So not knowing anything is their first advantage.  Their second is raw talent.  Freddy Sanchez is in the running for a batting title.  Jason Bay is the best Canadian baseball player on the planet, and he definitely has the numbers that a GM can build a franchise around.  Our four-under-24 rotation has more upside than any in baseball, in my opinion–one pair tore up the second half last year, and the other has turned into the team’s most consistent starters.  If I were given the chance to pick any one closer for my team for the next five years, Mike Gonzalez would be my second choice, only behind the phenomenal Jonathon Papelbon.  Jose Bautista, Xavier Nady, and Ronny Paulino have shown enough flashes of brilliance to impress even the most critical scouts.  There’s a nucleus taking shape that will be in black and gold for quite some time.

Third–and last, and most important–is another form of youthful ignorance.  These Pirates care minimally about what they’ve done to date.  Sure, they were hard to watch in the early part of the season.  They got swept by the Kansas City Royals, a team made up of has-beens and never-wills.  They went on a two-week long losing skid that left them so cold that fans no longer had to drink their Iron City beer from a frosted mug.  But after the All-Star break, they’re playing .500 ball.  Go figure.  Theoretically, the Bucs are fielding lesser-caliber players after a trade deadline roster purge, but they’re playing better baseball.  When you’re out of the race, it’s all about what have you done for me lately; these Pirates are doing a lot.

Give me the Marlins or Pirates over the Yankees or Red Sox any day of the week.  They’ll take their lumps, but their enthusiam for the game is still there.  Guys run out grounders.  They lay out to make the highlight reel catches.  They try to throw gas by the superstars.  They’re young, they’re invincible, and they’re flat out fun to watch.  I can’t see 2007’s record being anything like 2006’s as long as Dave Littlefield goes out and spends his free agent dollars wisely.  This roster (with a little tweaking) will succeed.

Tonight, the Astros come to town for three Skyblast games and a Sunday matinee.  PNC Park will be packed, and it’s not unreasonable to guess that over 150,000 Pittsburghers will pass through the turnstiles in the next four days.  The Bucs are hot, the sun is shining, and the greatest fireworks show around will be going off all weekend.  What more can you ask for?  You gotta believe!

It’s A New Pirates Generation, everybody shout "Let’s Go Bucs!"

August 22 @ Atlanta Braves

Stop the presses!  Damaso Marte earned his first win of the 2006 season and the Bucs managed to peddle Jose Hernandez for cash on the same day.  Next thing you know, pigs will be flying and it’ll be a brisk 32 degrees in ****.  Truly a monumental day in the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.

All joking aside, Tuesday night’s win against a young-but-tough Atlanta squad was one of those "team efforts" I occasionally have the pleasure of writing about.  Every Pirate in the starting lineup reached base at least once, five different Bucs drove in a run in the 5-3 come from behind victory, and six pitchers were used in the nine innings of play.  Four runs were plated in an eighth inning offensive outburst off of Braves reliever Danys Baez, another stopper acquired by GM John Schuerholz who doesn’t do much stopping.

Mike Gonzalez boomed his way to his 22nd save of the campaign, striking out two Braves without allowing his customary three baserunners.  I’m anxious to see how Capps, Grabow, and Gonzalez mesh in the 2007 bullpen, assuming all make it through the offseason roster purge.  I’d like to think that our relief corps will be a definite strength next season with possible additions from within–Jonah Bayliss, Josh Shapless, Brian Rogers–and via trades and free agency.

Chris Duffy doubled and walked in five plate appearances (4 AB) and stole his 12th base of the year as part of the eighth inning explosion.  The jury’s still out though, I’m afraid; the roller coaster ride is far from over with a month of ball left to be played, and Chris is going to have to claw his way to next year’s starting CF job.

Tonight, the Bucs have a chance to steal a series in Hotlanta with Ian Snell toeing the rubber in opposition of Tim Hudson.  Very few of us could’ve predicted in April that Snell would be the pitcher with more wins, but his numbers (11-8, 4.51 ERA) are better than Hudson’s (10-10, 4.77 ERA).  Let’s see what goes down at 7:35.

It’s A New Pirates Generation, everybody shout "Let’s Go Bucs!"

August 21 @ Atlanta Braves

Jason Bay had two outfield assists in Monday night’s 3-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves; if he had been able to make another top-tier defensive play, a sprint-and-slide catch of a ball in foul territory, I might be talking about a Pirates win instead of another road loss.  Unfortunately, Martin Prado’s pop up dropped, and with his second chance the rookie second baseman stung a two-run double that increased the Braves lead to three runs, effectively putting the game out of reach with a brilliant John Smoltz on the mound.

Smoltz and Zach Duke locked horns in a pitcher’s duel that took less than two hours to complete; Smoltz held the Pirates to three hits in eight innings of work and struck out ten, and Duke’s line read 7 IP, 7 H, 3 ER.  Britt Reames tossed a scoreless mop-up inning, and Bob Wickman earned his 24th save of the season.

Jim Tracy ran out his "crafty veteran lineup", with Jeromy Burnitz playing RF and batting fifth and Joe Randa playing 3B in the seventh hole.  Ronny Paulino dropped from sixth to eighth, and Jose Castillo was removed from the starting nine.  The usual-but-questionable Duffy-Wilson-Sanchez-Bay foursome filled out the top of the lineup, and Xavier Nady rounded out the starters in the sixth spot (where I think he fits nicely).  Maybe Littlefield’s shopping our vets with the hope of unloading them to a contender (Jamie Moyer, Neifi Perez, and Guillermo Mota moved in the past week), or maybe Tracy’s just trying to mix things up.  I’m really a fan of the idea of trading JB to the Mets for a minor leaguer; it’d be fantastic if Omar Minaya is, too.

Tonight, Shawn Chacon squares off against reliever-turned starter Oscar Villarreal, who sports a 9-1 record despite his 4.13 ERA.  In his last outing–his first start of the year–Villarreal allowed only one base hit in five innings of work.  Chacon takes the hill in a spot start to give Tom Gorzelanny an extra couple of days to rest a stiff elbow.  Tracy denies that this is the beginning of a six-man rotation–I don’t believe him.

As a minor league aside, Jonah Bayliss earned his 23rd save of the year for Indianapolis last night (lowering his era to 1.74 in the process).  I know that Reames is up to do his best Vogelsong, innings-eater impersonation, but isn’t it about time to get Jonah back in the ‘burgh?  Just a thought, because

It’s A New Pirates Generation, everybody shout "Let’s Go Bucs!"

“Drama Without Words”

Few of you probably remember the original, long-winded title of my blog.  It was:  "Losing the 1992 NLCS was the undoing of the Pittsburgh Pirates," a John Smoltz quote from Barry Bonds’ short-lived television show.

It’s too soon to completely write them off, but if Boston doesn’t recover from the devastating set that just ended at Fenway, you could hear something like this:

"Losing the five-game-September-series was the undoing of the Boston Red Sox."

There’s still plenty of baseball to be played in 2006, but with only 38 games remaining on their schedule, Boston trails New York by 6.5 games in the AL East and Chicago by 4.5 in the wild card.  The Red Sox still have four more games against the Yanks this year, but unfortunately for the Boston faithful they’ll be played in the House the Ruth Built in September–a place that Steinbrenner’s boys don’t often lose.

This five-game sweep, the first such stretch for the Yanks against the Sox in nearly 55 years, was wire-to-wire domination by the Yankees.  The men in white took the occasional lead, but come crunch time, it was the Jeters, Posadas, Damons, and Giambis who made sure that their pin-striped brethren would have an excellent shot at seeing October yet again.  It was a demoralizing loss for Boston, Massachusetts, New England, and even America as a whole–but in the Bronx, it’s party time.

August 19-20 @ Cincinnati Reds

You know in For Love of the Game when Jane tells Billy Chapel that he’s perfect, that he can win or lose the game all by himself?  That’s Victor Santos to a T, except for the parts about being perfect and winning.

After a strong effort Friday night at Great American Ballpark that saw the Reds fall 7-3, our Bucs suffered 14-7 and 5-1 setbacks, allowing Cincinnati to stay within 2.5 games of the division-leading Cardinals and maintain their two game edge over Arizona and San Diego in the wild card standings.  The recent magnificent outings by Pirates starting pitchers were nowhere to be found, as both Paul Maholm and Santos yielded ten hits in five innings of work; despite striking out seven Reds apiece, Paul let seven runners cross the plate, and Victor five.

The Pittsburgh Lumber Company put on a show in the first two games of the series but vanished before the start of Sunday’s contest.  Xavier Nady continued swinging a hot bat and Jason Bay launched a solo Bucco blast–his 27th of the season–but Freddy Sanchez went 0-4 and struck out twice, and Jeromy Burnitz, Jose Castillo, and Humberto Cota also went hitless.  The bullpen, which had fallen apart in a seven run seventh inning on Saturday, performed up to expectations in the day game, with Damaso Marte, Matt Capps, and Mike Gonzalez each throwing a scoreless inning.

Zach Duke starts on Monday against John Smoltz and the rest of the Atlanta Braves.  He was moved up to give Tom Gorzelanny some extra rest–Tracy denies that this is the start of a six-man rotation–but #57 will be joined by the likes of Chacon, Gorzo, Snell, Maholm, and Santos on the hill for the forseeable future.  Perhaps in September we’ll see John Van Benschoten make a couple of big league starts, as he’s doing extremely well on his rehab assignment.  The former top draft pick recently had an extended outing for AAA Indianapolis.

The Bucs take on the Braves for three games until coming home Thursday for the Astros and Skyblast.  Let’s build up some momentum heading into the last month of the season.

It’s A New Pirates Generation, everybody shout "Let’s Go Bucs!"

Cleaning Up

Our Bucs are trailing 7-6 heading into the bottom of the sixth frame, but I’m not here to talk about the game quite yet.  I want to take a second to look the lineup:

  1. Bautista, CF
  2. Wilson, SS
  3. Sanchez, 3B
  4. Bay, LF
  5. Nady, RF
  6. Paulino, C
  7. Hernandez, 1B
  8. Castillo, 2B
  9. Maholm, P

1-2 and 5-9 can be left alone for the moment.  I’d like you to take a look at spots #3 and #4 in the murderer’s row that is our Pittsburgh Pirates starting nine.

Without mentioning the names Papi or Manny, please tell me who you’d rather have than Freddy Sanchez and Jason Bay hitting in the middle of your lineup.  I can’t think of a Major League Baseball team that is more blessed than the Bucs.  All Freddy does is get on base (2-2, BB today to get to .354), and all Jason does is drive him in (2-3, HR, 3 RBI).  Bay’s producing A-Rod numbers (.295-26-84 now) this year, and Sanchez is going to win a batting crown.  Granted, Freddy might be suited for a spot higher in the lineup, but for where he is, he’s performing more than capably.

Just thought I’d give a shout out to the nucleus of the 2007 team.  Here’s hoping our guys keep hitting, and hitting, and hitting some more.

It’s A New Pirates Generation, everybody shout "Let’s Go Bucs!"

August 18 @ Cincinnati Reds

Oh what a difference a Bay makes.

The offense was humming on Friday night with the returns of Jason Bay and Jack Wilson to the starting lineup (and with the Reds starting a relief pitcher, the game being played in the Great American Homerun Park, etc.) as our Bucs stopped their losing streak at two and won their fifteenth game of the year away from home.  The Pirates are now 15-45 on the road and 8-32 in games started by a southpaw.

After shuffling through a three-game series with the Brewers without our superstar–a set at PNC Park that saw Pittsburgh score only nine runs on 27 hits in three games–the Pirates broke out in Cincinnati to the tune of seven runs and 15 hits in a thumping of the still-contending Reds.  Freddy Sanchez (.351) and Xavier Nady (3 RBI) had four-hit games, Bay and Ronny Paulino each chipped in two knocks, and Jack Wilson, Jose Castillo, and Ian Snell each had one hit and drove in a run.

Snell improved to 11-8 and gave the Bucs another quality start, going 7 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 5 K.  He allowed four bases on balls, three of which came in the same inning that contributed to the first Cincinnati run.  John Grabow and Britt Reames each allowed the Reds to chalk up a tally in their innings of relief work, but the Reds couldn’t manage to overcome a strong Pirates effort.

Over 31,000 Cincinnati fans left G.A.B. with a bitter taste in their mouths as they watched their squad drop an important game to the worst team in the National League.  Last weekend, the Bucs took a series from St. Louis that allowed the Reds to hang around in the NL Central and wildcard races; now, we’re looking to even up the score.  Wouldn’t it be great to sweep the top two teams in the divison on consecutive Sundays?

Paul Maholm (5-10, 4.58) against Eric Milton (8-7, 5.01) tonight at 6:10.  Let’s see if we can’t defy the statistics and get to another lefty starter on the road.

It’s A New Pirates Generation, everybody shout "Let’s Go Bucs!"