May 2012

Pirates, frequent bugs, ready to be the windshield

Baseball guys are always saying that yesterday doesn’t matter, only today counts. That the most important game of the season is the one you play today. Cliche 101. But in the case of the Pirates, it’s the gospel truth.

Nothing that has transpired this season means anything next to what happens next. Napoleon has his Waterloo. The Bucs have their Milwaukee, which is where they’re off next.

Well, hopefully they won’t be off, the way they have been in Miller Park for years. Had they never bothered even showing up for the last 46 games, they would have only four fewer wins than they actually have. 

So you’d think they would sneak into Wisconsin, eyes on the ground. But, no — the Bucs are ready to kick in the front door, planning to be the worst thing that could happen to Milwaukee other than the return of Prohibition.

His club’s past troubles in Milwaukee is “why I can’t wait to get there. It’s time we did well,” Clint Hurdle says.

“You need to be persistent when you’re trying to change what you’ve done historically. You can’t back away, you have to look right after it. I’m looking forward to it,” added the manager.

Two huge difference for this return — well, three, if you count the ’12 model James McDonald, who goes Sunday, and good luck to anyone trying to deal with him these days.

One, the Pirates are at .500. Discounting one early-season stop (in 2009), the Pirates haven’t visited Milwaukee without a losing record this century. Last time: June 25, 1999.

Two, there are a lot of new faces on the team not aware that the Bucs winning in Wisconsin is against state law.

“There’s a lot of new guys in this clubhouse, and some young guys,” says Neil Walker. “I think we’re going to have some memory loss with how things have gone there.”

Heck, losing your memory is a lot better than losing 42 of 46 games.

Jordy Mercer is in the house

Infielder Jordy Mercer brings a hot bat from Indianapolis. The Pirates recalled their 3rd round pick in the 2008 Draft before Tuesday’s game, hoping his bat doesn’t cool in transit. Mercer was carrying a .358 May average with the Indians and at .303 ranked as the International League’s eighth-best hitter.

Those numbers are a far cry from what the Pirates have been getting at Mercer’s primary position, shortstop. Through Monday, Pittsburgh’s shortstop were hitting a collective .175, with nine RBIs.

One of the three who has logged some time at short — Yamaico Navarro — was the player optioned to Indianapolis to make room for Mercer. Is another, Clint Barmes, also on the way out?

No chance. Mercer, who will be making his Major League debut, isn’t here to take anyone’s job but to provide back-up. With Josh Harrison having made a home for himself in right field, the Bucs needed someone to cover his super-utility role, someone with a livelier bat than Navarro’s.

As popular as it has become to boo Barmes, his defense has been at least a small factor in the Pirates’ pitching successes — particularly behind ground-ball pitchers, such as Charlie Morton, who goes against the Reds tonight. And Barmes has been driving the ball a lot better of late.


A step, not a destination

I like the way the Pirates are shrugging off having reached .500. It’s significant to outsiders, because whenever the Bucs get there, it’s their opportunity to revisit the whole 0-for-19 thing. But the fact the players — and staff — treat it as ho-hum is proof that they’re thinking way more than a winning record.

“We want a championship, not just .500,” Andrew McCutchen says.

It’s good to not be satisfied with just chasing .500. And realistic, when you look at the long list of teams that recently coincided ends of long losing eras with postseason appearances. The 2007 Rockies (Clint Hurdle’s Rockies), 2008 Rays and 2010 Reds, to name a few.

This attitude could be part of what Hurdle has meant when he so often has said that 2011 prepared the Pirates for this season. When the Bucs broke through the .500 ceiling last season and even occupied first place for a spell, the guys in uniform reflected the fans’ feeling of satisfaction. And they had little left, emotionally as well as physically, when it went south.

Now the guys who were here last year know better than be satisfied. And among the guys who weren’t are postseason vets such as Rod Barajas, Clint Barmes, Casey McGehee and A.J. Burnett who won’t let them.

Monday’s 4-1 win was noteworthy and convincing; the Reds had come in hot and smoking. But had the Pirates celebrated it, it would’ve been disappointing. Taking it stride was much better.

Right now, I just want to see how far they can take this, just to see the reaction of the legions of people who had already stamped them one of the worst clubs ever assembled. Yeah, they were talking mainly offense, but implicit in that dis was the feeling their pitchers couldn’t come close to carrying the load.

They haven’t dropped it yet.

McLouth love-affair never had chance to bloom

The Pirates’ decision — unavoidable as it was – to designate Nate McLouth for assignment is easily the most depressing point of this season.

McLouth’s return to Pittsburgh, which he’d left leaving a track of tears upon his deal to Atlanta three years ago, had all the elements of a triumphant homecoming. Before the season, even before Spring Training, fans rejoiced over his return. Had he been able to fulfill his role as a busy fourth outfielder, McLouth could’ve been bigger in this town than any Pirates player, starters included.

But the love never had a chance to bloom. Nate hadn’t had a hit since May 6, 22 at-bats ago, and came up absolutely blank in his prime job of pinch-hitting (0-for-13).

He leaves with an average of .140, with two RBIs in 57 at-bats.

He is an extremely likable individual who should be well short of the finish line at the age of 30. Perhaps a change of scenery will be good for him. A return to old scenery certainly was not.

Bucs shake up outfield for Niese

Gorkys Hernandez in left field and Josh Harrison in right? Not exactly the way the Bucs had drawn up their outfield in Spring Training, is it?

But that’s what will be surrounding Andrew McCutchen this afternoon at PNC Park when the Pirates take on Mets lefty Jonathon Niese.

Harrison remains a no-brainer. The little (5-foot-8) guy keeps hitting the stitches off the ball. And manager Clint Hurdle thought this was the perfect occasion to give Hernandez his first big-league start.

“The splits against Niese are significant enough. So we’ll take a shot at it,” Hurdle said.

Right-handed hitters aren’t exactly abusing Niese. Still, their .266 average against him is more than a hundred points higher than what left-handed batters have done (.160) with him. Most significantly, all eight homers off Niese have been by right-handed hitters.

Pedro Alvarez (Yamaico Navarro starts at third) joins Jose Tabata on the bench. Both are slumping. Hurdle counts on two straight days off (no game Thursday) will get them back on track.

Bucs’ Grilli on Bereavement List; Locke up

Jason Grilli, the Bucs’ invaluable setup reliever, was placed on the Bereavement List Sunday morning following the death of his wife’s grandfather.

Recalled from Triple-A to take Grilli’s place on the roster was left-hander Jeff Locke.
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Locke brings a fresh arm from Indianapolis. He was scheduled to start Sunday, after having gone 3-3 with an ERA of 3.02 in his first eight starts of the season.

The 24-year-old Locke made his brief Major League debut last season with the Pirates, going winless in four September starts. He has made only nine lifetime relief appearances, out of a total of 142 professional games.

Comerica becomes Gorkys Park.

The addition of Gorkys Hernandez may have surprised, even puzzled, most people, but it makes perfect sense to me. Taking off from the expectation that the Pirates would ‘swap’ a pitcher (Evan Meek) for a position player for the Interleague series in Detroit, the choice of Hernandez is understandable.

His speciality is defense, and nowhere is there a bigger premium on outfield range than in vast Comerica Park. Add the fact Hernandez was originally a member of the Tigers organization (he was dealt after the 2007 season to Atlanta, which flipped him to the Pirates in the Nate McLouth deal), and he could have a little extra mojo getting a chance to make his Major League debut against them.

Adding Hernandez also sends a little message to Jose Tabata, who essentially is getting benched Friday night because of two physical errors in the field and a mental one in the batter’s box Thursday night in Washington. Clint Hurdle attributed Tabata’s mistakes to misplaced focus, and said “he knows the price for that is spending the next game watching next to me on the bench.”

If the Bucs need a defensive replacement late in Friday’s game, the call will be for Gorkys. But Tabata will get the word, too.

No “I” in team, but definitely an “A.J.”

So what does it mean to be a team leader in baseball? How can one personality influence the collective psyche?

The term is thrown around so loosely, it can lose meaning. Like, “dietary ice cream.”

“Veteran leadership.” How does it work?

Have an example, from the fly on the wall of the Pirates’ clubhouse.

Chris Resop calls out across to room:

“Hey, A.J. Who is No. 48? Don’t look at the sign above the locker.”

“Hughes!” A.J. Burnett shouts back, and starts walking across the floor.

“There you go. Jared Hughes was just saying he bets you don’t even know who he is.”

“I also know it’s not Jared. His first name is William,” Burnett says, as we walks up to Hughes and the two exchange a fist-pump.

“Wow! Thanks, man, Really cool,” the rookie Hughes, whose given name really is William Jared Hughes, tells the 14-year vet Burnett.

Any questions? 

Bedard scratched, Lincoln to step in

This won’t come as a surprise, but Erik Bedard has been scratched from his next scheduled start, Monday against the Marlins in Miami. Brad Lincoln will step into his spot. Bedard, ousted from his Wednesday start by back spasms, will instead open up the two-game series on Wednesday against the Nationals.

Manager Clint Hurdle made the decision after talking to both Bedard and the training staff. Bedard has been taking muscle relaxants and getting other treatment.

What this means in the short-term is that Lincoln will not be available out of the bullpen for the final two games of the ongoing series against the Astros. But the Bucs have Daniel McCutchen available for any long relief assignments.

McCutchen was added to the roster when Joel Hanrahan went on the Bereavement List on Friday, and hasn’t yet worked. 

Hanrahan, whose grandmother had passed away, is due back in town Saturday night, and is expected to be activated for Sunday’s game.

McCutchen’s smile and bat are both back

Been a while since I’d seen Andrew McCutchen smile. The smile was back early Tuesday afternoon, as McCutchen looked forward to a productive return to the Bucs lineup.

He has played only 13 innings in a week, since coming down with a nasty stomach flu. He wishes he hadn’t played even that much.

Given Sunday off by manager Clint Hurdle and Monday by the Pirates’ schedule has made all the difference.

“Yeah, definitely. That was some well-needed time off,” McCutchen told me. “I felt good today, woke up feeling really good. So I feel like my normal self, ready to go out and start playing again.”

Normal is good. Andrew was back in his customary No. 3 spot in the lineup — but his lineup neighbors are different. Pedro Alvarez has moved in behind him in the cleanup spot, and Neil Walker is now in front of him in the two-hole.

“I lost a little weight, but I’m slowly putting it back on,” McCutchen added. “I got my appetite back, so I’ll be able to put it back quick.”