April 2012

Is no-hitter Justin time?

A month after hurling Indianapolis’ last previous no-hitter, Ian Snell was in the Pirates’ rotation. 

So does that mean Justin Wilson, who pitched most (7 1/3innings) of the Indians’ first no-hitter since 2005, should pack his bags?

Not necessarily. Wilson already has more Triple-A experience than Snell had when he held Norfolk hitless on May 15, 2005. But the current Pirates staff, rotation and bullpen, is (yes, I can’t believe I’m writing this) impenetrable.

Nonetheless, Wilson obviously brightened his pin on the Pirates’ map with his Sunday gem against Durham.

Wilson was a mid-March cut from Spring Training with specific developmental instructions he apparently is following. When he was optioned, general manager Neal Huntington said Wilson needed to “refine his mechanics and become more consistent.”

He was consistent enough on Sunday to hold Durham hitless for 7 1/3 innings. Jose Diaz and Major League veteran lefty Doug Slaten finished up the gem.

Wilson was pulled after 107 pitches because he had pitched into the eighth inning for only the second time in 78 Minor League starts. However, always on the lookout for a match-up lefty, he may at first reach the Pirates as a reliever.

“Love the velocity, the arm strength and the power,” Huntington says of the 6-foot-2, 220-pound lefty who was the club’s fifth-round choice in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft.

Need to light a fuse? Is there a match?

A.J. Burnett was asked after last night’s game whether he somewhat expected the Pirates offense to be roused by his own nifty escape from a fifth-inning jam against the Braves.

“These guys don’t need a lot of spark,” A.J. said. “They go to the end every game. It just didn’t work out for us this time.”

But there have already been a lot of “this times” for the Bucs, especially their crack starters. In going six innings on a yield of two runs, Burnett tendered their seventh unrewarded quality-plus start. What’s quality-plus? I just made that up: Going six-plus innings and allowing no more than two earned runs (as opposed to three, for the standard quality start). The Bucs rotation has had 10 of those, and won only three of them.

Does the offense indeed need a spark? How long can you wait for it to catch up to the pitching?

This question becomes even more relevant today, as Bryce Harper joins the Nationals and Mike Trout joins the Angels. Washington called up its uber-prospect due to injury issues, so the Angels’ situation is more comparable to that of the Pirates — they’re languishing, and needed a pick-me-up.

The elephant in this room obviously is Starling Marte. It’s a touchy quandary for Neal Huntington, who among other things may be sensitive to repeating the Pedro Alvarez experience; the third baseman may yet get it right, but a lot of people feel his current problems are a reflection of the fact he’d been rushed to the Majors, merging into the Bucs lineup two years after being Drafted.

How do we know Marte wouldn’t turn out to be Jose Altuve instead? The little (5-foot-5) 22-year-old has lit a fuse under the Astros.

The Bucs want to expose Marte to enough Triple-A pitching so his bat is ready when he makes the jump but, ironically, his speed would be an immediate asset. Clint Hurdle knew his team was short on power and would have to make up for it with its legs, but that hasn’t been working out at all. Rather than run into big innings, the Bucs have been running themselves out of it. 12-for-22 in steal attempts isn’t cutting it.

The proven bats on this team will get hotter. But nobody will suddenly get faster.

Back at the scene of the ‘crime’

Big topic of pre-game conversation in Bucs’ Turner Field clubhouse was their 2011 Waterloo — the Jerry Meals call that ended last July 26’s 19-inning game here, and started the Pirates’ tailspin into oblivion.

There may really be no such thing as an on-off switch, but when Meals erroneously called Julio Lugo safe under Michael McKenry’s tag, it sure did seem to turn out the lights on the Bucs. They went into that game tied with the Cardinals for the NL Central lead — and that game became the first loss in a 19-43 finish.

Returning players re-lived that game with a shrug. Clint Hurdle couldn’t even give it that much. “I hadn’t even thought about it,” the manager said.

Hurdle certainly gave a lot more thought to his lineup for the first of four against the Braves. Casey McGehee is in the seven-hole for the first time all season, with the hope he can provide some protection for Pedro Alvarez, who leapfrogged him into the sixth spot.

It’s just another way to try to extend some innings. Hurdle needs to sprinkle the few guys currently hitting throughout the lineup, to break up the automatic outs. Once the others pick up some steam, that won’t be a problem. 

Views to a thrill

I had a little time to kill yesterday at the Pittsburgh airport. Actually, I had a lot of time to kill. My travel agent is Murphy, of Murphy’s Law fame. Rule No. 1: “The less time you have to catch a flight, the farther your gate, and vice versa.” So I’m really early for my flight to Atlanta — you got it, very first gate in the concourse.

Anyway — with all this time, and fresh out of David Baldacci books to read, I decided to make a list. Every once in a while, we hear about this veteran pitcher appearing in his umpteenth different Major League stadium, or that seasoned player playing in so many different parks — bloated numbers due to waves of new construction.

I was about to make my first visit to Turner Field, which I’d somehow missed for its first 15 years, but had frequently been to its predecessor, Fulton County Stadium. So I got to thinking: How many different Major League press boxes will that make for me?

So I began to list them, somewhat surprised by how quickly they all came back to me.

And — drumroll, please — The Ted will be No. 51!

Considering I started covering baseball when there were 24 teams, and even now we’re up to only 30 — guess that means I’ve seen a lot of yards come and go. I began humming Sinatra’s “There Used To Be A Ballpark Here” and flashed back to each and every one of them, randomly … 

Dodger Stadium … Angel Stadium … Memorial Coliseum (joined the list in 2008, when the Dodgers played a turn-back-the-clock exhibition against the Red Sox) … Three Rivers … Forbes Field … PNC Park … Riverfront … Great American … Municipal … Progressive … Shea … Yankee … Fenway …

… Wrigley … Fulton County … Oakland Alameda Coliseum … Candlestick … AT&T … County Stadium… Miller Park … Chase Field … Coors Field … Kauffman … Comiskey … U.S. Cellular … Busch II and III … Veterans … Citizens Bank … Memorial … Camden Yards … Pro Player … Tropicana … Arlington … Rangers Ballpark … 

… Exhibition Stadium … SkyDome … Olympic Stadium … Tiger … Comerica … Kingdome … SAFECO … PETCO … Jack Murphy … Astrodome … Minute Maid … Metrodome … RFK … Nationals Park … Metropolitan.

Spring Training ballparks? Don’t even start me, considering I’ve done both Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues.

And know what? When I first step into Turner Field, the kick will be as big as ever. Might even do a little jig through the door.

Why the umpire doesn’t yell “Work Ball!”

What an absolutely perfect day for a doubleheader. It’s days like this that make me think I should pay to watch The Beautiful Game, not the other way around. I’m still waiting for someone to yank the media pass off my neck and say, “Sorry. We were only kidding.”

What makes today even more special is the fact the Bucs and Rockies are playing a traditional twin-bill. None of that day-night-kill-a-few-hours-in-between ballapalooza.

The guys in uniform certainly prefer the traditional approach.

“Less taxing. You get into a routine and just continue to play,” Clint Hurdle said. “I like that. You don’t stay on ‘pause’ for an extended period of time. There is a more continuous flow.”

Scheduled doubleheaders are extinct. In the course of the season, postponements will lead both to single-admission and day-night doubleheaders, the latter necessary to protect revenue in ballparks that regularly are filled.

But another thing totally extinct is the single-admission, twi-night doubleheader. Those used to be staples at old Forbes Field, catering to steelworkers off the day shift. I remember attending many memorable twi-nighters, which typically began at 6 p.m. and late in the season would proceed without curfews (since the visiting team would not be making subsequent appearances).

Such as the one against the Cardinals, with both games long, drawn-out extra-inning affairs. The final pitch was made at something like two o’clock in the morning. There was nothing lik seeing Elroy Face kick high and throw forkballs into the dirt at 2 a.m.

Hitting, pitching finally in sync

This was a terrific win for the Bucs, whose timely hitting checked in before their terrific pitching checked out.

In the post-game clubhouse, there were so many exhales of relief, it briefly felt like a wind tunnel.

It takes more than one breakout game to get well. Too much of the lineup is still well below the Mendoza Line. But at least a trio found its way onto the Interstate: Clint Barmes (.146), Rod Barajas (.108) and Yamaico Navarro (.100) lifted their averages out of beginning with an “.0″

Speaking of that threesome … Neal Huntington had almost as good a night as did Barmes. Those three were among the GM’s offseason acquisitions. Add Casey McGehee, and four newcomers contributed a collective 6-for-13 to arguably the Pirates’ best win yet of the young season.

Considering the offensive vacuum that has drawn so much negative national attention, it’s remarkable that the Bucs could be one day away from reaching .500. They could reach that plateau in Wednesday’s doubleheader with the Rockies.

How consistently amazing has the Pirates’ pitching been? They have now gone the season’s first 16 games yet to allow more than five runs. Modern baseball’s toughest pitching staff — the 1968 Bob Gibson Cardinals, whose domination had a lot to do with causing the pitching mound to be lowered — yielded 48 runs in its first 16 games; the Bucs have also allowed 48.

Take (48-hour) notice, 26th man

Some people were surprised by the Pirates’ early Monday call to cancel that night’s game, setting up a traditional doubleheader for Wednesday afternoon. The ranks of the surprised and somewhat confused grew as the day went on, with little rain coming down and temperatures actually going up.

Other than the fact the forecast was indeed discouraging, this might further explain the early call: There is a revolutionary new rule in the fresh Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to temporarily add a 26th player for doubleheaders: But only if the twin-bill is scheduled with a 48-hour notice.

The Pirates notified MLB of Monday’s postponement at about 12:30 p.m., a half hour before word went out to the media and, through them, the public. The first game of Wednesday’s doubleheader is scheduled to start at 12:35 p.m.

Manager Clint Hurdle did confirm a few minutes ago that the Bucs will be adding a reliever for the twosome. The Pirates bullpen has been an arm short anyway, since Jared Hughes was optioned to Indy to make room for A.J. Burnett’s activation. Most likely addition for tomorrow is a lefty to support Tony Watson, someone like Daniel Moskos.

The 26th man is a one-day-and-done deal. Unless another roster move is made to accomodate a longer stay, he must return to the Minors immediately after the games’ conclusion.

North Side, South Side, Sunny Side

Through my window, looks like a beautiful day in Pittsburgh. Looks aren’t deceiving. But neither do they come with a thermometer.

A couple of cold nights at the yard don’t figure to light a fire under those Pirates bats. It may be coincidental, but it occurred to me the other day that they’ve played in only two warm-weather spots all year: Florida, where they were the top hitting team for most of the Grapefruit League season, and Phoenix, where they took a series from the D-backs.

So, yeah baby, it’s (still) cold outside. 

Tomorrow’s doubleheader will be the earliest in Pittsburgh since April 23, 1978, when the Bucs swept the Cardinals at Three Rivers. It’ll be the Bucs’ earliest twin-bill on the baseball calendar since an April 20, 1983 DH in Shea Stadium; the Bucs were swept in that one.

The only previous PNC Park April doubleheader? April 28, 2002, a split with the Padres.

Twin-bills, of course, are no longer scheduled and result from postponements. With balanced schedules including only one inter-divisional visits, host teams must immediately double-up to make up any weather casualties. Thus that ’02 twin-bill and tomorrow’s with a pair of West Division clubs.

Karstens lands on the DL; Lincoln up

PHOENIX — Jeff Karstens on Wednesday was placed on the 15-day DL by the Pirates, who recalled right-hander Bran Lincoln from Indianapolis to take his place on the roster and in the rotation.

Karstens had departed his start here Tuesday night after one inning, suffering from inflammation in his right, pitching shoulder. He is returning to Pittsburgh with the club following the Wednesday matinee here, but the Pirates did not await results of his examination by team doctors before making the move.

Lincoln had entered Spring Training as a candidate for the rotation after making eight 2011 starts with the Pirates, going 2-3 with a 4.72 ERA in them. In two starts this season for the Triple-A Indians, he has a 2.25 ERA, with no walks and nine strikeouts in 12 innings.

The Bucs’ 2006 No. 1 Draft choice (fourth overall selection) could be only a placeholder for A.J. Burnett, who is scheduled to make one more rehab start — on Saturday with Class-AA Altoona — before coming off the DL for his debut with the Pirates.

Burnett on the brink — then what?

A.J. Burnett could be less than two weeks away from joining the Pirates’ rotation — putting him right on target for the early end of the 8-to-12 week recovery window he’d been given following his March 2 surgery.

Burnett is due to join the club tonight in time to take in the game against the D-backs in Chase Field, fresh off his rocky but start Monday night in Indianapolis.

The plan is for Burnett to be examined by the team’s medical staff, travel back East with the Bucs and throw a side under pitching coach Ray Searage’s watch, make one more rehab start on Saturday with Class-AA Altoona — then hook up with the Pirates.

Manager Clint Hurdle said he hasn’t been even “penciled” into the rotation yet. The scenario will be re-visited following that fourth, and final, rehab start.

This is definitely an odd situation for the Pirates. whose last need would appear to be rotation help. The five current starters have been nails, yet to allow more than three runs in any of their starts. And, of course, Burnett’s arrival would have to mean the exclusion of a current starter.

The original design was for a starter to be moved to the bullpen – -someone like Jeff Karstens or Kevin Correia — but the current Pirates relievers have been even more effective than the starters.

Sounds like GM Neal Huntington faces some big decisions, with Hurdle’s input. A trade is very much possible — several Major League teams have already suffered key losses to their bullpens and loom as logical trade partners.

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