We don’t know Jeff Locke’s long-range prospects. After last season’s second-half fade, he had to win back his starter’s job, something he obviously cannot do on the sidelines with a sore right-side.
Short-range, however, he must pretty much be considered out of the season-opening picture. Whenever he is ready to resume throwing, he will be back at Square One while other starters are already stretched out to three innings.
So the Pirates may be looking for a fifth starter in April. They shouldn’t look farther than their own bullpen: Jeanmar Gomez.
When all is said and done, this may go down as Neal Huntington’s finest trade, in January 2013: Gomez from the Indians for Quincy Latimore (who, if you must know, is back in the Pirates family after being signed as a Minor League free agent five weeks ago).
Every time he has taken the mound, in whatever capacity, the 26-year-old Gomez has been lights-out. It’s continuing this spring: 6 innings, no runs on two hits, no walks and three strikeouts.
And he does it so precisely, it seems effortless. He blanked the Twins on one hit for three innings the other day, and needed only 28 pitches to get the nine outs.
The Bucs actually won all eight of Gomez’s starts last season. They gotta go for nine-for-nine in early April.
* * *
Travis Snider is known on Twitter as @Lunchboxhero45 for being a celebrated foodie. But he doesn’t actually have a nickname.
He may have one now, since manager Clint Hurdle, referring to his offseason workout regimen and the toe surgery to get rid of an excruciating bone spur, the other day said of the boyish Snider, “He looks younger than he did last year, and that’s impossible.”
That does it. We have to start calling him …
… Benjamin Button.
* * *
The Bucs clearly are their league’s AL-killers.
Their National League-best 7-2 exhibition record is easy to understand: All they are playing are AL teams. And, remember, the Pirates had the NL’s best Interleague record last season at 15-5.
So this Grapefruit League start is simply business as usual.
* * *
… as the Rays were getting drubbed today by the Bucs, the Charlotte Sports Park operators apparently had no choice but to pay homage to the Pirates mascot:
Damnedest thing caused by today’s downpour, which cancelled the Pirates’ return engagement with the Blue Jays:
It also turned back the clubhouse clock.
There, in the middle of their McKechnie Field clubhouse, were Pirates players grouped around round tables playing cards.
The lightning and thunder must’ve been interfering with their smartphones and tablets reception.
It was like a scene out of “Bang the Drums Slowly.” And it was wonderful to see.
* * *
I’m still amazed by the fact of the 20 pitchers on the Pirates’ 40-man roster, 19 were with the organization last year. The only newcomer is Edinson Volquez. Stuff like that just doesn’t happen in this era of free agents and non-tenders.
Apparently, Erik Bedard, the ole Buccos left-hander, is equally amazed by such stability.
Bedard is in the Rays camp trying to earn a job as a non-roster invitee and feels pretty good about his chances because, as he noted, “Every team turns around every year. It’s never the same. Nobody keeps the same guys anymore. They’ll switch, trade, get released. Back in the day, everybody stayed.”
There’s your new nickname for Pittsburgh’s team: The Back-in-the-day Buccos.
* * *
The Budweiser folks, fronted by Ozzie Smith, are fewer than 40,000 signatures shy of forcing a formal White House response to their petition to have Opening Day declared a National Holiday.
If they pull it off, we can deal with the details later. Like, what would be the official 2014 Opening Day? March 22, when the Dodgers and the D-backs meet Down Under? March 30, when the same Dodgers visit San Diego for the first domestic regular-season game? Or March 31, when everybody else — including the Cubs in PNC Park — joins in?
On a National Holiday, fans presumably would be more relaxed to enjoy Budweiser’s offerings. They could be busy emptying memorabilia, since more than six million cases of the stuff are being rolled out bearing images of MLB and 23 of its teams, including this cool number:
One nice thing about most of the ’13 Pirates still being around: Since the last week of the regular season through the first week of the Grapefruit League, the Bucs have lost only five of their last 20 games.
I know; stupid to draw a string through regular season to playoff games to exhibitions. Yet, whatever the time, these guys could be getting used to winning. Nice habit.
* * *
In the past couple of games, I’ve seen some situations at home plate that tell me that no-collision rule will be easy to live with, and all the angst expressed over it has been much ado about nothing.
Tuesday in Lakeland and today in Dunedin, Pirates right fielders made strong throws to the plate with runners bearing down on Chris Stewart and Tony Sanchez.
In both instances, the runner simply lowered into a slide approaching the plate. Now, in a Spring Training game, they may not have been motivated anyway to pile drive the catcher. Still, it was a relatively simple maneuver to slide before there was any contact.
As is the case with most rules, there is a lot of fancy language with this new one detailing what can and can’t happen. But this one really comes down to one basic point: Runners cannot go through the catcher to get to home plate.
* * *
Remember the SNL skit in which Christopher Walken keeps saying, “We need more cow bells!” and a bearded Will Ferrell keeps complying?
Well, I keep thinking of that these days whenever a new Pirates reliever enters a game. Which, of course, happens often in exhibitions.
“We need more southpaws!”
And they keep coming: Brandon Mann, up from the Minor League camp, Joely Rodriguez and Daniel Schlereth combined to throw 3 1/3 shutout innings — allowing one hit — in today’s 6-4 victory over Toronto.
Pittsburgh lefty relievers have pitched a total of 19 innings in eight games and allowed four earned runs (1.89 ERA).
* * *
It may be the Tampa Bay football brand … still, the Bucs had a stylish ride to Dunedin.
Yes, the Grapefruit League is a little different from the Cactus League, both to cover and to play in. All you have to know about the difference is this:
To show the layout of all the camps in the two locations, MLB’s Spring Training Media Guide has a map of Phoenix … and a map of Florida.
It’s the Grapefruit “Are We There Yet?” League.
* * *
I got a clarification of the proper way to pronounce young left-hander Joely Rodriguez’s first name: Hard “J” and neither vowel is silent.
So turns out years ago Rickie Lee Jones sang about him … “Jolie, Jolie … all I want you to do is just be happy.”
If Joely keeps pitching as he has been, both he and Clint Hurdle will be happy.
* * *
Before today’s game in Lakeland, Hurdle spent some time behind the batting cage with Jim Leyland, as usual.
Except, this time Leyland was not in uniform and was not about to manage the Tigers against the Pirates. And Hurdle had never seen the former Buccos skipper happier.
“He’s happy. He’s in a good place,” Hurdle said. “That man worked his backside off for 50-some years, he deserves to be happy, he deserves to catch his breath. He’s enjoying what he’s doing [consulting for the Tigers and their new manager, Brad Ausmus] and what he’s getting into, so good for him.
“He looks good. Of course, I was told the same thing in September ’09 [when Hurdle was unemployed, having been fired by the Rockies], how good I looked. Makes you want to ask, ‘Well, how did I use to look?’”
I was able to share with Bill Virdon — a regular at camp — a cool nugget from the Red Sox notes for today’s Grapefruit League game with the Bucs:
When John Farrell led the Sox to a 97-65 record last season, he became the first manager in his first year with a team to at least tie for the Majors’ best record (the Cardinals also had 97 regular-season wins) since … Virdon with the 1972 Bucs.
“Thanks for letting me know that … but did I have more wins than he did?”
Sorry, Quail — your ’72 Pirates only did 96-59. But you did have the better winning percentage — .619 to Farrell’s .599 — in a schedule shorted to 155 games by a brief players’ strike.
* * *
Another former Pirates skipper was known as Harry (The Hat) Walker.
I’m not sure why he was called that — as one story goes, it came from his habit of constantly adjusting his cap during at-bats, but then why wouldn’t he have been known as Harry (The Cap) Walker?
Anyway, apparently there is some guy in Pirates camp channeling Harry Walker. I’ve become known as Tom (The Hat) Singer. Must be because when I shopped for a lid to shield me from the hot Florida sun, this is the best I could come up with:
All these athletes getting into various degrees of hot water for their use of Twitter ought to take lessons from Tony Sanchez.
The catcher is easily the Pirates’ busiest tweeter, and he does it with an amazing and impressive amount of restraint (not to mention, a large dose of welcomed humor). You’d be stunned at the level of direct abuse he gets from people dissatisfied with his progress since the Bucs made him their No. 1 Draft pick in 2009 — and he responds to it tactfully, tastefully and with reserve.
I don’t think I could do it.
* * *
Cardinals GM John Mozeliak irritated David Freese, at the time of his trade to the Angels, by wondering whether he might have found it too tough to play for his hometown team.
“Growing up in St. Louis, this could not have been the easiest place to play,” Mozeliak had told reporters. “I do think he may be looking forward to a fresh start. This was not an easy year for him.”
Freese resented the implication he couldn’t handle the hometown heat. But there is heat. Take it from Neil Walker, the one Pirates player who can relate to the situation.
“It can be a burden,” The Pittsburgh Kid said during a “Conversation” with me. “Fortunately, I’ve been groomed for that from Day One, getting Drafted by the Pirates. I’ve learned to deal with it, to know where to focus my energy and my time, making sure priority number one is on the field, helping the team win.”
Be sure to read & see the rest of the “Conversation with Neil Walker,” tomorrow at Pirates.com.
* * *
Zach Thornton gave up that game-tying home run to start the ninth before putting his foot down, but otherwise the big arms in the Bucs’ deep bullpen continued to do their thing in Saturday’s 2-2 tie with the Rays.
Eight relievers held Tampa Bay to that one run in nine innings, while fanning 10.
The early relievers scorecard, through four Grapefruit League games (not including starting pitchers who have worked in relief, such as Jeff Locke and Edinson Volquez): 32 1/3 innings, five earned runs, 26 whiffs.
Only in Spring Training:
The travel squad the Yankees brought to McKechnie Field was so heavy with young prospects, the uniform numbers of their starting lineup averaged 66. Going with their regulars, the Pirates lineup averaged 27.
DH Andrew Lambo was high man for the Bucs, No. 57. Six Yankees starters wore higher numbers than that.
* * *
An item in the Yankees pre-game notes highlighted the fact there are 11 players in their camp 6-foot-4 or taller. Sounded like a challenge, so we checked: The Pirates have 12 in camp 6-foot-4 or taller. So there.
* * *
Joe Shula, who hosts the “Leading Off” talk show on WFBG in the Bucs’ Double-A home, Altoona, had a fascinating guest Wednesday, on multiple levels.
Chuck Goggin is distinguished as the most decorated veteran of the Vietnam War to ever play in the Majors. The Marine was awarded both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star following his 13-month tour of duty in 1966-67.
Goggin, now 68, had a brief big-league career with three teams, playing 72 games and collecting 29 hits, the first with the Pirates on Sept. 30, 1972.
That date should sound familiar. It is the game in which Roberto Clemente got the 3,000th and last hit of his career.
* * *
Bovada, the Las Vegas voice everybody seems to be listening to, lists the over-and-under for wins by the Pirates this season at 83 1/2. So if it all goes as it did last year, the Bucs should have 100 wins: Bovada missed by 16 1/2 a year ago, when it had that line at 77 1/2.
* * *
You can’t make this stuff up:
Of all the raves we’ve heard about Gregory Polanco, the ones that stand out are about his speed. About how he can fly down the baseline in no time and, with those long legs, make it look effortless.
So — in his first competitive at-bat of the spring, in today’s Gold V Black intrasquad game, he tops a ball that dribbles maybe 50 feet up the first base line. And by the time pitcher Joely Rodriguez runs over to try to glove the ball, Polanco has crossed the bag with an infield single.
* * *
Rodriguez, by the way, had batters hitting worm-killers like that throughout his one-inning stint, which included another infield hit. If the Pirates staff loves swing-and-miss stuff, they very much like ground-ball stuff, so keep a longshot eye on Joely.
* * *
You know it’s a low-key squad game when, listed as “extras,” are guys like Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte and Russell Martin. None of them got into the game.
* * *
Maybe my eyes are playing tricks on me, since the guy obviously has always had power. But, I swear, I’ve never seen the ball fly off Alvarez’s bat as it has this spring in batting practice. He just seems quicker, and is hitting moonshots with the flick of the wrist.
* * *
Ozzie Smith is spearheading a campaign to have baseball’s Opening Day declared a national holiday.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle thinks it may be unnecessary, if the intent is to enable kids to attend games without playing hooky from school.
“I love Opening Day, and I know my kids are going to be sick that day,” Hurdle said. “They’re going to come down with a bad fever. Bucco Fever.”
* * *
Gift Ngoepe was a late entry in the Blacks’ lineup, taking over for Chase d’Arnaud, who had been designated for assignment to make room for Brent Morel, picked up on waivers from the Blue Jays.
Yes, with Chase gone, that made Ngoepe the Bucs’ going-away Gift.
After several days of watching Gregory Polanco in batting practice, I’m most impressed with how hard he hits the ball when he perfectly squares up on it.
One thing I’d noticed about Andrew McCutchen is his ability to pull a ball so squarely, it does not bend at all. You’ve all seen right-handed hitters pull balls hard that naturally curve foul. But McCutchen can hit a ball so hard, it stays on a straight line. I’ve never seen anyone else able to pull that off (no pun intended).
Well, Polanco can do the same thing, pulling a ball to right. Seeing the ball off the bat, you expect it to curve foul. But it stays straight and true and darts against or over the fence.
If you’re going to be mirror image of someone, Cutch is not a bad reflection to choose.
* * *
A typo in a local newspaper had the Pirates going through “Sprint Training.”
Is that a speed drill? Or, learning how to properly use a cell phone?
* * *
Buccos pitchers aren’t exactly lining up at trainer Todd Tomczyk’s office for those new cap pads available to offer them extra protection from line drives hit back to the box. They find it bulky and awkward.
MLB has approved the use of the paddings, manufactured by 4Licensing Corporation subsidiary isoBlox, but I’ve yet to hear of a pitcher interested in using it. Not even Brandon McCarthy, whose frightening 2011 shelling by a liner actually spawned the R&D leading to the padding’s creation.
* * *
Not Pirates related but — remember when reliever Heath Bell was called into the 2011 All-Star Game in Chase Field, and became an instant fan favorite by taking the mound with a hook slide?
The “slide” has turned out to be prophetic.
In the first half of that season, Bell had converted 26 of 27 save opportunities, and had not allowed a home run in 37 innings, while fashioning a 2.43 ERA.
Since the slide: He has blown 19 of 70 save opportunities, allowed 21 homers in 155 innings, and has an ERA of 4.24.
On Saturday’s workout bill: Middle infielders working on digging throws out of the dirt.
Here’s the cool part: Doing the throwing, burying ball after ball in the dirt in front of the second base bag, was first baseman Gaby Sanchez.
That must have felt like a welcomed bit of revenge for the guy who is usually doing the digging, of infielders’ throws into the dirt.
* * *
The Pirates spent part of Saturday’s workouts on baserunning drills. They did all possible variations: Home to first, first to third, second to home, and so on.
But, no, they did not practice home run trots. Guess that comes naturally.
* * *
As Edinson Volquez pitched batting practice to Starling Marte and Neil Walker, watching glued behind the batting cage was Frank Coonelly.
The club president must’ve wanted an up-close-and-personal look at the Pirates’ chief free agent signing of the winter.
Asked for a review of Volquez’s work, Coonelly said, “Ball was coming out of his hand nice,” with a nod toward Ray Searage, since that is one of the pitching coach’s pet compliments.
* * *
Buccos players and staff have reached the Camp Fever stage of Spring Training, the point at which they begin to feel the fences of Pirate City closing in on them.
Two more days of workouts, then it’s on to McKechnie Field and, following Tuesday’s Black & Gold game, the start of Grapefruit League play.