June 2012

This win puts Bucs on the map — and NL on alert

Watching today’s game on TV — one of the perks of taking a little vacation break — I was impressed with how many times Bob Walk mentioned his concern about the Pirates’ inability to add on to the five runs they scored in the first inning.

I was particularly impressed after the Bucs closed out the 5-4 win over the Phillies. Because Walk was absolutely right — sitting on five early runs is normally a recipe for a come-from-ahead loss. The fact the Pirates didn’t let it happen made it, in my opinion, their biggest statement win of the season.

Only special, legitimate teams get away with a win like that. The Bucs’ 40th win was their biggest yet. From Casey McGehee’s big bomb in the first to his clutch dash-and-catch of Pirates-killer Carlos Ruiz foul pop in the eighth — right through winning despite Andrew McCutchen’s 0-for-5, which would have been impossible a couple of weeks ago — this was a contender doing everything necessary to win.

Without a question, this is the most intriguing phase of the Bucs’ season. Because once they started slipping last summer, there was no stopping the free-fall. Amazingly, within 18 games, the ’11 Pirates went from first place to under .500, never to surface again,  from a record of 48-43 on July 15 to 54-55 on Aug. 3.

Clint Hurdle’s 2012 boys have already had a chance to pull the same disappearing act. Four straight (ugly) losses at the start of their previous road trip dropped them to 32-31, still in the heart of the foreboding Interleague schedule. So the Bucs were again staring disaster in the face, and this time disaster blinked. They’ve gone 8-4 since.

Maybe there is something to Hurdle’s gospel. There is such a long way to go, but there’s a certain ring to “Finish.” Sure sounds better than “Vanish.” 

Karstens on tap … but when? Maybe today.

Ah, let the speculation begin.

Jeff Karstens’ plans changed dramatically Sunday morning. He was supposed to be in Indianapolis, to make a final rehab start. But that was a scratch, and Clint Hurdle has just confirmed that the righty will definitely rejoin the rotation and start on the upcoming roadtrip.

When, and in whose place, is the big question. Although, it probably is not coincidental that Karstens is on the same throwing schedule as Kevin Correia, who is slated to start today’s game against Detroit.

“Slated” is the operative word there. Some believe that the behind-the-scenes machinations may be over in time for Karstens to actually start today. That would still permit him to make another start on the upcoming trip to Philadelphia and St. Louis.

Karstens has been on the DL since mid-April, originally with shoulder inflammation, and more recemtly with a slight hip flexor strain. 

Bucs want to be more armed — and dangerous

While there is an overwhelming perception out there that the Pirates are scouring the market looking for offensive help, the feeling here is that they are more keen on building on their strength — pitching.

The Bucs couldn’t acquire enough bats for a true makeover. GM Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle may think it’s a better plan to fortify the staff to the point it becomes a daily — not just, say, every three out of five days — force.

It would certainly make sense, given the Majors’ current landscape: Overall, batting averages are at a 40-year-low. The days of out-bashing the opposition are over (or, have at least been interrupted). Pitching, always the core of teams, rules.

“As long as the game has been played, championship teams have been built on pitching and defense,” said Hurdle. “That is the mindset that was put in place here before I got here, and it’s one I definitely tried to make known.

“We’ve gotta pitch it and catch it — and offensively we’ll figure things out as we go forward. Every good team that plays late in the season — where they finish offensively is not nearly as important as where they finish on the pitching end of it. Pitching keeps you in the game, keeps you playing late, gives you an opportunity to win.”

Doesn’t sound like the Bucs are about to switch to Plan B (Bats), does it? Stick with Plan A (Arms). Fortify that armory. Strong-arm the rest of the National League. Might be a good idea.

Bucs’ pitching depth about to be tested?

We’ve been hearing a lot about the Pirates’ cache of backed-up pitching talent in the Minors. Soon, we might be seeing it.

If initial reports are true that Charlie Morton, upon a doctor’s visit after pain flared in his elbow during a bullpen session on Sunday, was told that he might need Tommy John surgery, the Bucs are suddenly looking at two holes in the back end of their rotation. Jeff Karstens’ almost-finished rehab from shoulder inflammation was recently set back by a hip flexor issue.

Add Brad Lincoln’s unconvincing response to a chance to start and Kevin Correia’s ongoing struggles, and you’ve got three dependable starters (A.J. Burnett, Erik Bedard, James McDonald) and two hold-your-breaths.

The leading lifelines at Indianapolis?

Rudy Owens jumps out, with his 2.29 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 79 innings. Another left-hander, Justin Wilson, has a 3.80 ERA in 13 starts while showing good putaway stuff (68 strikeouts in 68 2/3 innings).

A darkhorse could be Rick VandenHurk, who has considerable Major League experience — he was signed as a free agent in April after having split Spring Training with the Blue Jays and the Indians — and has won all four of his starts with the Indians. The 27-year-old righty has a 1.14 ERA.

One guy out of the picture, contrary to what I speculated about just a few days ago, is veteran left-hander Jo Jo Reyes. He’s got great numbers at Indy (5-1, 2.05 ERA in eight starts) — but has been on the disabled list since late May. 

Hail the bark of the underdog

It always works so well on the Silver Screen. Why not the Green Diamond?

In “Norma Rae,” it’s textile workers. In “The Longest Yard,” it’s inmates. In “Star Wars,” it’s the Force. Whatever. We love the underdog, the suppressed. We leap out of our seats in darkened theaters to cheer for them.

We get off on people who don’t sell out, who overcome by their own means.

But when it comes to baseball — or, really, sports in general — we don’t trust our team to earn its laurels. We want it to buy them.

This isn’t a commentary on current events. I’ve never gotten that. To me, it has always been more meaningful to pull for a team that had no chance than one which bought out the competition. Nowhere-to-go-but-up is always more fun than nowhere-to-go-but-down. Not in life. But in sports, an entertainment source meant to be uplifting? Bring me your tired, your poor — bring me someone I can care about.

If you invested in a team so heavily that you are expected to win — where is the thrill in that? So you win; that’s like buying a box of Cracker Jacks hoping to find peanuts inside. Whoopee.

But if you have a group of snot-nosed grinders, riffraff, baseball orphans — the Major League’s Bad News Bears, totally — and are giving the blue-bloods game, that’s stirring good stuff.

Yeah, we’re talking Pirates. Today. Yesterday, it was the Tampa Bay Rays. Tomorrow it will be some other team that for whatever reason — small media market, apathetic fans, even cash-strapped owners — has to fight heavy artillery with slingshots.

And sometimes they win. And they reinforce the idea that it is far more rewarding to band together and fight for success than it is to buy it. Rewarding for them, rewarding for their fans.

When the Pirates raise the Jolly Roger, Norma Rae raises her arms in triumph.

Could Pirates add Reyes?

Is Jo-Jo Reyes about to yo-yo back to the Majors?

I don’t know — but I do know that the Pirates will need a longer-term placeholder in their rotation with Jeff Karstens’ latest setback, and that Reyes keeps lighting it up in Indianapolis.

Brad Lincoln will lead off the series in Baltimore on Tuesday — a spot logically targeted for Karstens before his most recent rehab outing, on Thursday in Pawtucket with the Indians, was curtailed by discomfort in the right groin area,

A subsequent MRI targeted the hip flexor as the source of the discomfort. That’s a better diagnosis — but Karstens is still being shut down long enough to leave his next two turns vacant.

Lincoln may be too valuable as a long reliever — 0.45 ERA in 13 games and 20 innings — to keep starting.

If looking for reinforcements, Clint Hurdle could do worse than Reyes, the 27-year-old lefty — heck, he’s the same age as Tony Watson — who has a 2.05 ERA for his first nine outing at Indy, with a fine 34-to-10 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in 44 innings.

Pirates close out top 5 with JuCo righty

The Bucs finished the top tier of selections in Day 2 of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft with the fifth-round pick of Adrian Sampson, a right-hander from Bellevue Community College.

Sampson underwent Tommy John surgery three years ago, and was a 16-round pick last June by the Marlins.

The Pirates had gotten their portion of Day 2 underway by selecting Texas high-school catcher Wyatt Mathisen with their second round pick, the overall No. 69 selection.

Mathisen, from Corpus Christi, is part of the Texas Longhorns’ highly-touted recruiting class. Although drafted as a catcher, the 18-year-old has played other positions and, in fact, logged more games this season at short than behind the plate.

The Pirates followed up that pick with the third-round selection of right-hander Jonathan Sandfort at No. 103. Sandfort, from Winter Springs (FL) High School, towers 6-foot-5 and weighs 220 pounds and is just developing the power arm you’d expect of someone that size.

In the fourth round, the Bucs went back to the outfield college ranks, taking Georgia Tech center fielder Brandon Thomas at No. 136. The 21-year-old is a 6-foot-3, 205-pound switch hitter who was a 37th round pick in 2009 out of high school by the Rockies.

Stay tuned here for immediate updates of the Bucs’ upcoming Draft picks.

Candidates lined up for Morton’s slot

Charlie Morton’s placement on the disabled list, with elbow inflammation, leaves a hole in the Pirates rotation. Suddenly, there are two choices to step in for Morton on Tuesday in Cincinnati.

Brad Lincoln is one. As a spot starter, he has already been spot-on: He went six innings in a 3-2 win at Miami on May 14.

But also in the picture is Jeff Karstens, who is making another  rehab start tonight for Indianapolis. His next throw day wouldn’t be until Wednesday. But the Pirates’ bye yesterday would allow Clint Hurdle to juggle his rotation, going to A.J. Burnett for the opener of the Reds series.

Following his short (four innings) start on Wednesday in PNC Park against the Reds, Morton was specifically asked how he felt physically, and he said, “Fine.”

However, Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage noticed the lack of the usual movement on his pitches. Pitchers who do feel some discomfort aren’t too eager about owning up to it; job security and all that.

And, in retrospect, Charlie might have answered the health question in the affirmative, but he certainly wasn’t too convincing at it. 

Now that he’s been shut down for a spell, hopefully he’ll get better. Maybe, he’ll get best. He’s a good competitor; the Bucs need him.