For Openers … New verse, same as the first.

Neil Walker said “it kinda felt like a rollover from last year.”

He was talking about the 1-0, 10-inning Opening Day win over the Cubs — and he wasn’t kidding.

Never mind the full house, the excitement, Francisco Liriano’s biting slider and the Shark Tank baring its teeth.

But … 1-0?

The ’13 Bucs put themselves on the map in a late-May stretch of four 1-0 victories within 11 days. That told them they’ve got the pitching and the nerve to compete with, and slay, the tough teams, confidence they never lost.

They got an early reminder that they’ve still got all of that.

* * *

Jack Wilson shared an interesting recollection about Andrew McCutchen prior to participating in the pre-game ceremonies honoring Pirates awards winners.

“I remember Freddy Sanchez and I walking out after a Sunday day game (in 2005), and he was doing his pre-Draft workout,” Wilson said, “and we stuck around a little to see what he can do. I think he was like 165 pounds then and he was putting ‘em father in BP than any of our guys at the time. So we were pretty much in awe.

“One of best things you can have in your career is watching young players go from the start to an established point of their careers. I’m honored to be here to hand him that (Silver Slugger) award.”

* * *

The Pirates heralded Opening Day with a set picture that was quite revealing.

Depicting uniformed Pirates players posed in front of PNC Park. the picture clearly had been taken at the end of last season — since it appeared late Sunday night, before  the Bucs had made their official return to the park.

The photo includes players who were certain to be back on the ’14 team — Pedro Alvarez, Russell Martin, Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Walker, McCutchen and Liriano.

No first baseman or right fielder (Garrett Jones would be non-tendered) or shortstop (Clint Barmes’ return was unknown, and Jordy Mercer’s status may also been up in the air).

Then again, with Liriano the only starter pictured, I could just be full of hot air — there is this thing called Photoshop, I’m told.

* * *

How can you tell it is a special occasion, like Opening Day?

Easy: The Pirate Parrot wears his black tails (as in, tuxedo) to the park.

* * *

“We’re still chasing,” Clint Hurdle said, a reference to the fact last season ended for his Pirates in the Division Series.

The glib manager has his own unique way of describing what the team strives for:

“We’re looking for excellence, not success. Success is comparing yourself to somebody else. Excellence is being the best you can be.”

* * *

Jim Leyland, taking another field-level look around PNC Park:

“This is the most beautiful, best ballpark in America. And I’ve been to all of them.”

Opening Day will have a Holliday — but no Holiday

Bulletin: You will still have to come down with the flu to attend Opening Day.
Matt Holliday is still in. But a National Holiday is out.
Yep, the White House has turned down the petition to have baseball’s annual rebirth declared a National Holiday. The drive generated more than the 100,000 signatures required for formal consideration, but received a quick thumb from the Administration.
The “out” call was made gently by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who ended his statement thusly:
“While we are sympathetic to your pitch to make Opening Day a national holiday, it’s a little outside our strike zone: creating permanent federal holidays is traditionally the purview of Congress. So, it’s up to the men and women on Capitol Hill to decide whether to swing at this pitch.”
* * *
Anyone wondering what kind of Spring Training was had by Justin Morneau? Pretty much like his month with the Pirates: No home runs, three doubles his only extra-base hits, three RBIs, a .229 average.
Morneau still has not hit a home run since he left the American League. He’ll find a few in Denver’s altitude, but letting him go had to be GM Neal Huntington’s easiest call.
* * *
Let’s do a spring clean-up on the Pirates’ other high-profile exes:
A.J. Burnett: 6.05 ERA, nine walks, 12 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings; Down
Marlon Byrd: .298, two homers, eight RBIs; Up
Garrett Jones: .200, but three homers and 10 RBIs; Typical G.I.
* * *
Final cuts sometimes tell you more about a team than the players kept.
For instance, I’m thinking the Mets may not be so bad after all if they could not find room for Daisuke Matsuzaka, who had a 25-to-4 strikeouts-to-walks ration in 23 2/3 innings, along with a solid 3.04 ERA. He’s been sent to Triple-A Las Vegas.
And the Pirates? Vin Mazzaro is out after putting up a 1.24 WHIP and holding batters to a .239 average. Bet there are 25 other teams that broke camp with guys in their bullpens who only see those numbers in their dreams. The Bucs have become a relief factory, and Vin just fell off the conveyor belt.
I’d wish him luck — but the team that picks him up will have all the luck.
* * *
Rolled through the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Drove high above PNC Park. The heart skipped a few beats, and I swear I could hear Roberto urge, “Arriba! Arriba!” and the crack of Stargell’s bat answer pleas to put one “On The Hill Will.”
They’re ready up in heaven. We’re certainly ready down here on Earth.
Let The Show begin. Hope you all find it enthralling — and, again, unforgettable.
Happy Opening Day!

Day 32: Morris is a cool cat you want on your side in an alley fight

Maybe Gaby Sanchez does need someone with whom to platoon at first base. Someone who can hit left-handers.

Yeah, I know, it’s supposed to be the other way around. The Pirates love the way Gaby rakes southpaws, but came into camp unsure of whether he can handle righties well enough to be given the job full time.

So … three weeks into Grapefruit League play, Sanchez is 1-for-7 off lefties, and 5-for-9 off righties.

Guys, the drawing board eraser is right over there … 

* * *

I don’t know if Bryan Morris intentionally hit Cody Asche today after Phillies pitchers had already plunked two Pirates teammates.

I don’t know if Morris intentional hit Jordany Valdespin last May 11 after the Mets outfielder rubbed some people the wrong way.

I do know that I love the stuff Morris puts on the ball — and love even more the stuff he has in his chest. This is a guy you go to war with.

* * *

Sometimes, it helps to have a little Sherlock Holmes in you to cover Clint Hurdle, who isn’t prone to provide overt clues, but can drop hints here and there.

Consider his comment the other day that he wants to use the stiffer competition in Grapefruit League games to test pitchers fighting for jobs. In that context, the changes in the pitchers’ lineup for today’s game against the Phillies were revealing.

Yao-Hsun Yang who was originally scheduled to pitch, did not. That could mean he is out.

On the other hand, Cody Eppley and Phil Irwin, not among the original probables, did pitch, meaning they are still under consideration — along with Adam Wilk, who started, and Morris, who was valuable last season but must fend off some serious challengers.

* * *

Poor Andrew Lambo. He has played 13 games and has two hits. Travis Ishikawa, one of his competitors for a lefty-hitting reserve spot who missed the first two weeks of exhibitions while nursing a hamstring strain, has played six games and has twice as many hits.

Day 30: “But it worked in practice!”

The Pirates spent about 15 minutes of Friday morning’s workouts having middle infielders, all of them, take turns firing balls intentionally in the dirt at the first basemen. The first sackers showed brilliant pick ‘em skills, not one reminder of Dick Stuart, Dr. Strangeglove.

Chris McGuiness was one of those digging ball after ball out of the dirt, short shops and big hops. Didn’t miss a single one.

So, the game with the Phillies begins. The very first batter, Tony Gwynn, strikes out on a wicked curve, which catcher Tony Sanchez can’t handle cleanly. So he retrieves the ball, steps out in front of the plate for a clear line of vision and throws one at McGuiness’ feet — just like the dozens he’d handled cleanly in practice.

This one clangs off McGuiness’ glove. Error, Sanchez. Gwynn later scores, unearned run.

Practice may make perfect. But perfecter practice doesn’t guarantee anything, I guess. That’s baseball.

* * *

Charlie Morton is due to make a Saturday start in a Minor League game at Pirate City, where Wandy Rodriguez and Francisco Liriano have also made recent starts.

Good reason for these pitchers having to stretch out in Minor League exhibitions: The Pirates tried to schedule “B” games against Major League competition, to accommodate the needed work for the many pitchers still in camp, but couldn’t find any takers.

* * *

Poor Brandon Cumpton. He lives by the ground ball — and dies by the ground ball.

Cumpton has allowed nine runs this spring — and five of them have been unearned. That’s been a common problem for the right-hander, since his intention is to get batters to beat balls into the dirt, raising the possibility of misplays.

Cumpton gave up an unearned run in his brief Major League debut last season. In the Minors, he was victimized by eight unearned runs last year and seven in 2012.

“I try not to let that bother me,” Cumpton says. “Over the course of the season, that stuff evens out . I get my share of double plays, too.”

* * *

Given all the attention to the Pirates’ frequent and very successful strategy of moving infielders around to match hitters’ tendencies, I am amazed no one has yet flooded Pittsburgh-area stores with tee-shirts that say:



And just so you know, I hereby place a citizen’s trademark on that. You know, like “citizen’s arrest.” 

Day 27: Chris v Carp, and other off-day thoughts

There is competition all over Spring Training. Some of it real — for seats in the Bucs’ bullpen, for example. Some of it hypothetical — between Mike Carp and Chris McGuiness, for example.

What? They aren’t even on the same team, in the same camp. Sure; McGuiness is vying to be the Pirates’ left-handed hitting first baseman, and if neither he nor one of the other candidates steps up, Boston’s Carp is on the radar as a possible “get.”

So you’ve got to love how the two of them have performed in their only two head-to-head opportunities, the March 3, 9 exhibitions between the teams.

  • McGuiness is batting 1.000 (2-for-2) against the Red Sox and .250 (4-for-16) against everyone else, with two of his three RBIs off Boston pitching.
  • Carp is batting .429 (3-for-7) against the Pirates and .083 (1-for-12) against everyone else, with his only two homers and three RBIs off Pittsburgh pitching.

The “tie-breaker” will be March 19, in Ft. Myers. 

* * *

Catching up on the Barry-Bonds-is-back-in-the-Giants-camp media conference, why am I reminded all over again of the classic line, “He finally said hello when it was time to say good-bye?”

* * *

You know that corny sketch where a string is attached with a piece of gum to a dollar bill on the ground — and yanked away when someone bends down to pick it up?

Yeah, baseball rumors sometimes remind me of  that. Gotcha!

For example, reports that the Pirates are scouting Jeff Samardzija, the Cubs right-hander known to be on the block long as talks on a long-term deal are going nowhere. Jeff does have a 2014 pact for $5,345,000, positioning him out of the Bucs’ budget for a long deal and I don’t think the Bucs would be willing to swap a high-upside prospect for a one-year rental.

So the Pirates couldn’t be scouting him because he’s still scheduled to face them on Opening Day in PNC Park, could they? Nah. Makes a much better story the other way.

* * *

Observation: Gregory Polanco will have the most “glove hits” — hits on balls fielded by infielders — in whatever league he plays. His quickness in getting out of the box and speed down the line are both impressive. Any ball that takes more than one hop — he’s got a chance.

Day 24: Jeanmar, because eight is not enough.

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.

* * *

Finally … 

… 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:

Day 22: Cards? Shouldn’t you guys be tweeting someone?

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.

* * *

Day 21: New rule not too much on runners’ plate

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.

Day 20: A little Grapefruit traveling music, please.

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?’”

Day 19: Farrelll matches The Quail … kind of

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.

Virdon’s reaction?

“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:

* * *
If you’re looking for an early reason to get really excited about the Pirates, Pedro Alvarez’s  hitting out of the Spring Training gate is a good one.
This is a notoriously slow starter. Not only is he a career .193 hitter in April, not only did he not get his average above .200 for good last season until June 7, but he was hitting .080 through his first 10 exhibitions a year ago.
So here is Pedro, four games into this Grapefruit League action, batting .500 with an OBP of 1.571 and as many RBIs (3) as he had after 15 exhibitions a years ago.
Those are the numbers. But just seeing the confidence with which Alvarez is attacking each at-bats says volumes about how prepared he is to continue the vibe he set in last fall’s playoffs.


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