Back to Black: ’14 World Series is a sure thing

Andrew McCutchen had many reasons to want the Pirates’ postseason run to take them all the way to the World Series, but the most personal one was this:

He hoped to take his desire to positively influence Black American athletes to the most visible of stages.

Cutch won’t be there — but the Black-American presence will be back in the Fall Classic.

Lest you have a so-what’s-new-about-that? reaction to this, remember that the 2013 World Series between the Cardinals and the Red Sox was the first to not have a Black American player swing a bat or throw a pitch since 1950. Think about that — since three years following Jackie Robinson’s erasure of the color line.

The Cards still don’t have a Black player. Neither do the Giants.

But both teams clashing in the ALCS do.

The Royals include outfielders Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore. [And, at the risk of stating the obvious, how wonderfully apt is this on a team that plays its games a few Giancarlo Stanton homers away from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum?]

The Orioles include center fielder Adam Jones and deluxe pinch-hitter Delmon Young.

We are repeatedly reminded that MLB demographics reflect the steady decline of Black representation in the game. But nothing drove that point home better a year ago than the first World Series in 63 years without a Black player.

That will be a very good page to turn.

In a word: Unforgettable

Let’s play a little word association game, as a means of signing off on another fabulous, rewarding, memorable eight months in Buccos Nation.

You throw out the name of a member of the Pirates, and I’ll tell you the first word that comes to mind. Ready?

  • Hurdle … Tough
  • Harrison … Confident
  • Mercer … Resilient
  • McCutchen … Genuine
  • Melancon … Collected
  • Watson … Unshakeable
  • Walker … Responsible
  • Alvarez … Enigmatic
  • Martin … Fiery
  • Liriano … Quiet
  • Volquez … Amusing
  • Morton … Introspective
  • Locke … Toughened
  • G. Sanchez … Garrulous
  • Davis … Cosmopolitan
  • Barmes … Selfless
  • Hughes … Emotional
  • Holdzkom … Refreshing
  • Stewart … Prepared
  • Marte … Laid-back
  • Polanco … Patient
  • Snider … Witty
  • Wilson … Erratic
  • Cole … Combative
  • Worley … Anchored
  • Lambo … Ready
And a bonus, which requires more than just one word … 

    Pittsburgh: Gritty, special, welcoming, passionate, loud and proud.

    There is always “next year” to look forward to. But there will also always be “this year” to remember.

    Peace … out.

    Yes, it’s a whole new ballgame

    To recap …

    • The Angels, with best home record in the Majors, open up 0-2 in Angel Stadium.
    • The Royals, a poor last in the Majors in home runs, win consecutive extra-inning games on home runs.
    • A Clayton Kershaw-Adam Wainwright “duel” winds up 10-9.
    • Jon Lester can’t hold a 7-3 eighth-inning lead.
    • Clayton Kershaw can’t hold a 6-2 seventh-inning lead.
    • Mike Trout, after the hype machine stops whirring, is 0-for-8.
    • Oh, and the Pirates get an early dismissal with an 8-0 loss in the NL Wild Card, their most lopsided shutout defeat since Aug. 1 … of 2013.
    So … next time someone mentions that October is a whole different animal — don’t argue.

    Why no Pirates player will be NL MVP …

    They have too many candidates. It’s a chain gang.

    All season, Clint Hurdle and his players have espoused the one-for-all, all-for-one character of the team. The statistics back up that appraisal. So do the daily results.
     Asking “Who is the Bucs’ MVP?” is like asking “What will the weather in Pittsburgh be like today?” It depends on what day you ask.
    They connect the dots … and pass the lunch pail.
    This morning, it obviously is Russell Martin. On Sunday, without question it was Josh Harrison. That time he hit a tying home run in the ninth and a game-winner in the 11th, it had to be Andrew McCutchen. Pick any day he delivers a clutch hit, and it’s unquestionably Neil Walker.
    Nine Pirates have hit 10 or more homers.
    Eight Pirates have 40 or more RBIs, and 11 have 30 or more.
    The reigning MVP, McCutchen, won’t reach the 84 RBIs that last season were the fewest for a full-season MVP in a quarter-century.
    Cutch’s repeat chances are hurt by the fact he’ll have to split the votes with the Bucs’ breakout sensation. Harrison is the MVP choice of McCutchen himself — as well as of PNC Park fans who have begun to greet his at-bats with chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!”
    Then, there is Martin — whom we thought was invaluable last season, then he showed up for this one.
    In 2013, Martin batted .192 in 120 at-bats with men in scoring position, with 30 RBIs.
    In 2014, Martin is batting .380 with men in scoring position, and in fewer at-bats (92) has nearly double the RBIs (56).
    Hey, if MVP is out of the question, maybe Martin can bag Comeback (Clutch) Player of the Year.

    Eye for an eye? Baseball has an eye for retaliaton

    As I watched Josh Harrison and Starling Marte lead off Wednesday night’s game against the Phillies with a different sort of back-to-back — they both got hit by Jerome Williams pitches — it occurred to me target practice has to be over: The Bucs are already too good at getting hit.

    The Pirates have been hit by pitches 72 times — maybe a result of their hurlers’ commitment to pitching inside having resulted in an MLB-leading 80 hit batters.

    Maybe? And maybe the moon isn’t made of cheese.

    Next time you hear a pitcher shrug off a beanball with, “The pitch just got away from me,” just roll your eyes and hit the mute button.

    If retaliation is not part of the code, how come baseball’s six divisions rank in the exact same order in batters being hit and pitchers hitting batters?

    Here’s your scorecard, entering Thursday’s games:

    BATTERS HIT (Totals by division):

    • NL Central: 312
    • AL East: 263
    • AL West: 259
    • AL Central: 224
    • NL East: 212
    • NL West: 205

    HIT BATTERS:

    • NL Central: 287
    • AL East: 260
    • AL West: 255
    • AL Central: 245
    • NL East: 216
    • NL West: 212
    Not only are the rankings identical, but note the similarities in the two sets of numbers division by division. 
    I’m aware of one factor in this distribution: In a division game, say if Lance Lynn hits Andrew McCutchen, the incidence shows up in both sets (hit batter for Bucs, batter hit for Cards). But even with that mathematical sidebar, the numbers are interesting.
    Decoded.

    Hang with ‘em? Yeah, Liriano one of best at that

    There is a growing movement to eliminate — or, more realistically, at least de-emphasize — wins for starting pitchers.

    Francisco Liriano probably does not have a problem with that suggestion. He doesn’t get wins, anyway.

    In his effort Sunday against the Reds, Liriano protected his place in a wretched lineup: Pitchers with more than 20 starts in a season, an ERA lower than 4.00 — and no more than three victories.

    Mind you, Liriano is one of only 11 such misbegotten hurlers in the history of the game. In a way, however, he could be the biggest victim of them all: He is the only one to have met his fate on a winning, contending team. Sometimes, it’s just an everyday-lousy team and nothing goes right — as opposed to the fates picking on you.

    Check out this chronological list (Name – # of wins/starts; team and record):

    • Joe Harris – 2/24; 1906 Red Sox 49-105
    • Hal Brown – 3/21; 1964 Colt 45s 61-88
    • Mike Kekich – 2/20; 1968 Dodgers 76-86
    • Jerry Koosman – 3/32; 1978 Mets 66-96
    • John Montefusco – 3/22; 1979 Giants 61-79
    • Ross Baumgarten – 2/23; 1980 White So 70-90
    • John Dopson – 3/26; 1988 Expos 81-81
    • Eric Hillman – 2/22; 1993 Mets 59-103
    • Dustin Moseley – 3/20; 2011 Padres 71-91
    • Jacob Turner – 3/20; 2013 Marlins 62-100
    • FRANCISCO LIRIANO – 3/24; 2014 PIRATES 71-65
    And, lest you think that most of Frankie’s misses came on his off days, consider that he has either gone seven innings on a yield of no more than three runs or six while allowing no more than two a total of 10 times — and picked up wins in two of them.
    Actually, bad luck may have less to do with it than manager Clint Hurdle’s characteristic way of handling his starters and relievers. It works on a team basis, but starters often leave games they could win with a little longer mound tenure.
    Why do I say that? In today’s Majors, of the 109 pitchers who have made 20-plus starts and have an ERA below 4.00, there are only two who have fewer than six wins, and they’re both in the Bucs’ clubhouse: Liriano, and Charlie Morton.

     

    Crowded outfield: Josh Bell moving to first base

    In response to what is already being called their Dream Outfield, the Pirates are moving top position prospect Josh Bell to first base.

    Bell, freshly-named the Florida State League’s Player of the Year as an outfielder, has been working out at first base since his mid-July promotion to Double-A Altoona.

    Bell has yet to play at the new position, but will do so in the offseason Arizona Fall League for the Scottsdale Scorpions — who will be managed by Jeff Banister, the Major League club’s bench coach.

    “It’s a good situation,” said Pirates GM Neal Huntington. “Jeff will be able to keep an eye on how this goes and keep us updated.”

    Rated No. 3 among Pittsburgh prospects, Bell has a high ceiling, but perhaps little chance of reaching it at his original position with the Bucs. Despite Gregory Polanco’s recent return to Triple-A Indianapolis, the Pirates figure to be set for years with an outfield of Starling Marte,  Andrew McCutchen and Polanco.

    “He’ll first go to Instructional League after the season and continue working there,” Huntington said of Bell, “then he’ll get his first game-action at the position in the AFL.

    “It’s an opportunity for him to get at-bats in a very competitive environment, and to give first base a go. We just want to see how he takes to it and whether than can become an option for him.”

    An Olympian undertaking, for Pirates starters

    Like most baseball traditionalists, I’ve long had a problem with the concept of a “quality start.” Since that is defined as having a pitcher go six innings while allowing three earned runs, ideally a starter could have nothing but quality starts and finish the season with an ERA of 4.50 — hardly a “quality” performance.

    Lately, a new term has been introduced: Ultra-quality start, which is a seven-inning outing on a yield of two earned runs. While that is more appropriate, it’s still only an extension of the whole quality concept.

    For fun, let’s award medals, Olympics style, and rank starting pitchers accordingly.

    • Bronze: Six innings, three earned runs.
    • Silver: Seven innings, two earned runs.
    • Gold: Eight-plus innings, no more than one earned run.

    Here are the current standings of the Pirates rotation, ranked according to Golds. Maybe we’ll update this on a weekly basis.

    Pitcher / Gold-Silver-Bronze-Total

    Edinson Volquez 2-5-6-13

    Charlie Morton 1-7-4-12

    Gerrit Cole 1-3-5-9

    Jeff Locke 1-3-5-9

    Vance Worley 1-3-4-8

    Francisco Liriano 0-3-5-8

     

     

    The Morris deal: How about ‘present’ considerations?

    In the middle of another implosion by the Pirates bullpen, Bryan Morris comes out of the Marlins’ to blow down the three hitters he faces.

    Okay, we get it. The June 1 trade of Morris to Miami will not go down as one of Neal Huntington’s best. Quit rubbing it in: Against the Bucs alone, Morris has three shutout innings, with five strikeouts. Overall, he has an 0.28 ERA in 28 appearances for the Fish.

    I’d like to reconsider my original take on that deal. I’ve been saying that you need to wait years to rate it, because the player taken by the Pirates with the Draft choice acquired in return won’t be on the scene for years.

    On further thought … that is exactly what was wrong with that move.

    By the time Connor Joe, the Draft pick, arrives — IF he arrives; prospects are always crap shoots — Pedro Alvarez for sure, Andrew McCutchen likely, and Neil Walker possibly will all be gone. No way to foresee where the Pirates will be then.

    But we knew they were in a race NOW. You have to grab every chance to contend for a postseason shot, because it is never guaranteed.

    It isn’t like the Bucs shipped out a struggling pitcher. Morris was already 4-0 for them.

    And now that their bullpen appears to be crumbling, they’re in damage-control mode — while Morris is thriving in Florida.

    Please, I don’t even want to get into the Jason Grilli (19 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings for the Angels, with a 3.07 ERA) — Ernesto Frieri (10.13 ERA) business.

    From Cutch to Slap-Happy Ahmed: Curse ‘Zona

    So let’s take a look at the Pirates’ last two days in Phoenix.

    Saturday, Andrew McCutchen is drilled by a pitch, which very sensibly could have led to the oblique injury that will land him on the DL for the first time in his career, seriously impacting the Bucs’ playoff chances.

    Sunday, the D-backs won because the umpires let one of their baserunners flagrantly knock down an automatic inning-ending throw.

    Both things suck. Which sucks more will depend on the length of McCutchen’s absence.

    I’m not a doctor. I don’t even play one on TV nor slept at the Holiday Inn.

    But I do know that the body is an intricate web of interconnected muscles and tendons, and one area weakened by pain can lead to injury in another.

    A few innings before Randall Delgado’s hit on Andrew’s spine, he had flown through the air for a diving, twisting catch of a line drive. And got up smiling.

    Are you going to tell me that a man can put his body through something like that without a problem — and the next day become incapacitated by doing something he has done thousands of times? Swing a bat?

    The thing that happened in-between was the pitch, to retaliate for Paul Goldschmidt. Although Cutch said he had little day-after issues other than tightness, it had to impact his normal pregame preparation. His body wasn’t in as fine a tune as normal. Hence, the breakdown.

    As for Nick Ahmed batting down Jayson Nix’s double play relay in the 10th — short of going into second waving a tennis racket, that’s as flagrant as interference gets. Even the other Diamondbacks knew it — check the video: They weren’t celebrating, expecting the play to be waved off and the game to continue.

    From damnable to inexcusable. Quite a tandem.

    I blame Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

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