April 2011

The future’s open wide

When I was 18 years old I was in a high school play. To conclude my senior year a few friends and I thought it would be a change of pace to finish off four years. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was a blast, I was the camel. 

At 18 Bryce Harper is making $10 million and living every kid’s dream of playing professional baseball. 
Harper and his Hagerstown Suns visited Charleston, West Virginia this week to take on the Power, class-A affiliate of the Pirates. Of course, I had to see the phenom for myself. 
powerpark.jpg
Appalachia Power Park is an intimate place to watch a game with just a single level of seats wrapping around home plate and down the lines. Situated just off of downtown, the park is fairly new and modern. 
It was my first time here and really one of my first times spending an extended day in the WV capital. I had a job interview down there and made a day out of it touring my potential new home. I could think of no better way to cap off a productive day than at a ball game. 
I was coming to the game regardless, so having the chance to see Bryce Harper live was just an added incentive. I was not alone. About 20 people were waiting near the clubhouse for Harper, specifically. I was worried he would bypass the autograph seekers as I heard stories that he was a jerk and already at 18 he carried himself with the arrogance of Barry Bonds. 
He exemplified a bit of cockiness but was still cordial as he stopped to sign for everybody.
bryce signing2.jpg
brycesigning1.jpg
I got him to sign a Baseball America cover from March in which he leads a listing of baseball’s top 100 prospects. After the game he stopped to sign again and I had him sign my scorebook.
baseballamerica.jpg
In the game, Harper looked like the kid he is. 

brycebatting.jpg

He went 0-for-3 with a walk and was caught stealing. In the walk, he showed bunt on every single pitch and was walked in four. It was a move my little league coach had me do to draw the pitcher off and get on baseball easily. Harper’s trick paid off for him, too. He did make a nice sliding catch in right field to rob a for sure double, maybe triple.
The Suns were victorious 3-0. Offense was hard to come by for the Power. 
It was a fun time just being at a minor league game. The crowd, as a whole, was sparse but I still had a great time. The quirkiness of of games like this are the real draw for families and casual fans. The quality of baseball is still high, but many miscues were made across the diamond. That’s what minor league is for. Some of these prospects will never sniff the big leagues and in all honesty will flash out very soon. But players, like Harper, have a legitimate shot to be major league stars. 
The Power also had a future big leaguer on their roster in pitcher Jameson Taillon. He was chosen just one pick after Harper in last year’s draft. He made his debut two nights after I was down there and walked Harper in a rain shortened game. Taillon is just 19 years old but consistently was clocked at 100 mph in his 2 innings of work. 
I’m a good four years older than these guys, and I would give anything to be in their shoes. 

With cool and electric stuff, two pitchers lead Bucs rotation

Last season, the Pirates pitching staff compiled a 5.00 team earned run average.

A mark that was last in the National League. 
With just one complete game, coming from Paul Maholm, a team whip of 1.491 and only 32 wins coming from starting pitchers the outlook for this year’s pitching staff was equally as dismal.
1567 hits and 784 earned runs later, the Bucs have the 9th best pitching staff in the NL. 
The starters have opened some eyes, especially a rag-tag pair of blooming hurlers.
charlie-morton.jpg
kevin_correia_111369598.jpg
    
     Charlie   
     Morton
      and
Kevin Correia 
Many thought Charlie Morton had overstayed his welcome.
The 27 year old came to Pittsburgh by way of the vastly criticized Nate McLouth to the Braves trade. The pundits felt it was a lot to give up, the Pirates best hitter and past All-Star, for an unproven pitcher who was starting to faze out in the Atlanta organization. He added fuel to that fire with a highly subpar debut in Pittsburgh. It was a wretched start that extended through a handful of seasons. In 2010 he tabulated a 2-12 record and an astronomical 7.57 ERA. 
Today, Ken Rosenthal has called him a Roy Halladay clone. 
What’s the reason for the complete metamorphosis? Well, a tinkering to his windup, now Halladay-esque, has allowed Morton to attack the strike zone with a slower approach. Furthermore, his “stuff” isn’t exactly overwhelming. He doesn’t get a lot of movement on the ball but guides his pitches strategically. It’s been what the fans call “electric.”
Also no stranger to public outcry, Kevin Correia has denounced those heavily critiquing his signing. 
Myself included.
I didn’t feel that a guy ostracized from the Padres rotation could have a positive impact as a Pirates starter. Well, I have enjoyed being proven wrong. 
A 2.48 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 12 strikeouts in four starts are highly positive in my eyes. Heck, I’d say those numbers are dazzling, especially with what Pittsburgh has been used to, in the recent past. 
Saying Correia has been a pleasant surprise would also be an understatement. In Monday’s statement-making 9-3 win over the Reds, Correia carried a one hitter into the 7th and a two hitter into the 9th. He has been demanding on the mound with great control, an issue he has suffered from in the past. When a pitcher can master control of himself and stay cool, he can then focus on his opponent at hand. 
In their last two starts Morton and Corriea picked up complete games, already more than the Pirates’ staff last season. 
Is it too early to say these two starters are the complete package? With at least 20 more starts to come between them, we will find out if their “stuff” will last. 
photocredits: hyzduhq.blogspot.com, linkpittsburgh.com

On the offensive

I’ve been to three Pirate games thus far, this season. The young season has not treated me well, personally, as I am 0-3 when seeing live games.

Pittsburgh has been outscored 19-5 in those games.
The offense was looked at as an emerging force in the preseason as a young group of hitters were polishing off solid seasons in 2010. While players such as Jose Tabata (.310 BA, .420 OBP) and Neil Walker (11 RBI, .517 SLG) have anchored the top of the lineup, shortcomings from Pedro Alvarez (20 Ks, .197 BA) and a slump from Andrew McCutchen (2-for-30 in at-bats entering Sunday) hindered the team from getting proper production. 
Most of it has changed this series against the Reds. 
On Friday the Pirates scored six runs en route to a 6-1 victory. 
Sunday, Pittsburgh notched seven runs to sneak by with a 7-6 win. 
Players, other than those aforementioned, have stepped up and delivered to put these bigger numbers on the board.
Of course, they would do it on the road, when I’m not there.
Chris Snyder has gone 3-for-7 in these two wins. 

snyderreds.jpg

After starting the season on the disabled list, Snyder was penciled in behind the plate, right away, moving Ryan Doumit to a bench spot. His production has been consistent to open his season which should keep him in the starting lineup for a majority of games from here on out. His biggest asset is not at the plate, though, it’s behind it. Pitchers rave about his quality of calling games and he played a big part in Charlie Morton’s complete game against the Reds on Friday.
GJreds.jpg
In a platoon with Matt Diaz in right field, Garrett Jones has had his back against the wall. His decline in power had the front office concerned, but now he is beginning his comeback campaign. Jones has it two homers in the series and brought his average up to a respectable .282. Diaz has struggled to sustain a presence at the plate. So, it may play to Jones’ advantage is he continues to produce consistently. He may just get that starting job back.
johnbowkerreds.jpg
If Jones and Diaz both falter another viable option is waiting in the wings. John Bowker is trying to find his identity on the Bucs. He hasn’t been the first used pinch hitter of the bench, so far, but that decision may change quickly. He brought in the winning run in the top of the 8th inning, Sunday. Bowker drilled a 2-out pitch to deep center field that could have been a home run in other ballparks, while adding further insurance with just that one swing of the bat. 
Prior to the Reds series, manager Clint Hurdle tinkered with the lineup to make a change.
It was needed.
As I said before, the offense was dormant to open the season at home. My three games were pitiful and beyond that, the funk at the plate scorned the early optimism that many fans accumulated. Hurdle moved McCutchen up to the leadoff spot from the three hole. Tabata will bat second, with Lyle Overbay third. Walker is now the cleanup hitter dropping from the two hole. 
These moves paid off as more runs were produced, save for Saturday’s 11-2 beat down. As Tabata has proved he is the best hitter on the team, the second spot is the perfect fit for him. He is 5-for-14 in the new spot. McCutchen began his new role with an 0-for-5 performance, but has since proved that his natural position is where he wants to be. He led off Sunday’s game with a home run. Walker isn’t the most natural cleanup hitter. He doesn’t have the most power on the team, although he does have three dingers. But, No. 2 wasn’t ideal for him, either. He strikes out too much and that is not the best liability to have in a two hitter. 
The Pirates will stay in Cincinnati for a Monday game to close out the series. A win would pit them back at the .500 mark going to Florida to do battle with the Marlins on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Then it’s back home to host the Nationals over Easter weekend. I will be in attendance for one of those games ready to be entertained with some offensive action. 
photo credits: postgazette.com, bleacherreport.com, daylife.com

Home Sweet Home


DSCN2528.JPG

There may not be a more refreshing sight that will grace the PNC Park jumbo tron, this year.

Aside from a playoff picture, of course. 
Thursday brought opening day to PIttsburgh and along with it came an enthusiasm that has rarely been replicated in the ten years of PNC Park. People were excited.
DSCN2508.JPG
The energy outside the stadium was almost like a college football tailgate party. Upon my arrival to Pittsburgh around 10 am, Thursday, parking spaces were scarce. There were lawn chairs spread out, corn hole bean bags flying and cold beers being drank. A wonderful sight as many people chose to take an old fashioned sick day and mosey on over to the ballpark. It is a tradition unlike any other.
I was excited to connect with many people I have met through the glory of Pirates baseball and set aside much time just to take it all in. Opening Day is unlike any other in the season. Obviously, no matter who are primary team is, this day is special. But for the Pirates, there aren’t many more games like it. Without a legitimate playoff hope in the past decade, it is hard to sustain the optimism over the course of the grueling schedule. 
RSCN2510.JPG
The above picture signifies the feeling of the torment that is winter, the despair that the bleak weather will never subside and we won’t be able to experience the glory that is baseball season. I am here to testify that we truly can be at peace again.
Thumbnail image for DSCN2529.JPG
The glory can be felt throughout the field of green and even more so by the members of each club that often go under appreciated. Opening Day is the only time during the year that the head trainers, clubhouse managers and even massage therapists get their recognition in front of a sold out crowd. In Pittsburgh, it was the second largest in park history, 39,290. 
Erin and I were debuting in our new seats for the year, a pair of 20 game plans in section 322, row B, seats 1 and 2. Now, in most other ballparks that section may roll some eyes. For us, it was perfect. At just $140 we are secured for a fun-filled summer at the Best Ballpark in America. Indeed it is. 
While spirits were high and Pittsburgh was joined together in baseball unity, the team could not feed off the energy and fell 7-1 behind an un-spirited pitching performance from starter Paul Maholm and the bullpen. After back-to-back hits from Jose Tabata and Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen tallied a RBI. Even though things seemed to be looking up, six straight innings without a hit dug the offensive hole for the Pirates.
Friday night erased all negative thoughts of the day before.
tabatawalkofffri.jpg
The smiling faces and happy thoughts seemed to have exploded from the gallows of uncertainty. The pitching shortcomings of the night before far exceeded themselves against the Rockies on Friday. Ross Ohlendorf did give up a 3-run homer to Jason Giambi, but those were the only runs to cross the plate for Colorado. It took 14 innings but a double from Jose Tabata scored Josh Rodriguez to give the Buccos their first win at their own digs in 2011.
It still remains the only one as they dropped the next two games against the Rockies.

fireworkswvuday.jpg

Saturday night was WVU day at the park, a project I helped organize with other members of the graduating Public Relations class interested in sports communications. It was a great opportunity to get our foot in the door and was a rewarding endeavor. 
It was also fireworks night. While they entertained in the night sky above beautiful downtown Pittsburgh, the real explosions came in the left field bleachers.  
Saturday nights are a time when PNC Park is usually packed, packed with idiots who don’t know how to understand baseball and were never taught how to behave in public. A large group of fans in the bleachers began chanting “USA, USA, USA,” to what I believed was a mocking response to Rockies reliever Rafael Betancourt, a native of Venezuela. 
In fact, it was an unruly fan who was escorted out of the stadium not before resisting arrest and assaulting a stadium usher. Why the patriotic cheers? Well, he was wearing a very outlandish red, white and blue jumpsuit that had USA stitched on the chest. Not exactly what I deem to be proper ballpark attire, anyway. Videos of the event can be seen on youtube, including one shot by fellow MLBlogger, Erik Jabs.http://countingbaseballs.mlblogs.com 
cop beating.jpg
National media outlets have picked up on the event. Sportscenter and the New York Daily News have featured it. The fan was reluctant to obey the orders instructed to him by the Pittsburgh cops. A taser was induced with no effect as he wasn’t going to the ground. This forced police to draw nightsticks and mercilessly beat the man to the ground. People are calling this excessive force and police brutality, I call it making an example of a goon. You listen to the police, no matter who you are or what you may have did or didn’t do, you act with respect when confronted by cops. This guy did the far opposite and had this embarrassment coming.  
With a fresh seri
es against the Brewers coming up this week, I plan on returning to my summer home to catch some more baseball. We all have a special place where we need to go to take time off, relax and be entertained. For ten years, PNC Park has been my spot. With 78 more home games to go I plan on enjoying every single one I get to go to, win or lose. 
photo credits: pirates.com, nydailynews.com

Pitt Peas tours the beltway

I couldn’t take it any more. 

Watching the first two Pirates games on Pittsburgh’s recently updated Root Sports Channel, had me very pumped up. Both games were competitive with great starting pitching. It’s safe to say myself, along with many others, are pumped up about the now 2-1 Buccos. They head to St. Louis for three games with the Cardinals and arrive back in PNC Park Thursday for the home opener.
That is too long. 
My friend Andrew and I packed up and ventured to Washington, D.C. for the rubber match between the Braves and Nationals and our first taste of big league ball this season. 
DSCN2432.JPG
Our nation’s capital is really hopping this time of the year. For good reason because it may be the prettiest spot in America in the springtime. The cherry blossoms were out from every stretch of the city. In full bloom, they were beautiful. It was a great way to welcome us back to a place where all citizens should visit at some point in their lives. The trees were also a perfect gateway to a great day of the national pastime. 
DSCN2441.JPG
Adorning my Expos shirt to honor the fallen franchise, we arrived at Nationals Park right as they gates opened.
It was a beautiful day for a game. 
Temperatures flitted with 60 degrees but remained fairly enjoyable. There was a slight chill and a majority of shade in the stadium but it was the perfect setting for a game in early April.
DSCN2446.JPG
Our first view of baseball batting practice from the stands in left field. Nats Park is very underrated when spoken of comparing it to other ballparks. In my opinion, it is the fourth best place for baseball behind St. Louis’ Busch Stadium, San Francisco’s AT&T Park and, obviously, Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. We stayed for a lot of batting practice, and while I’m not into the ballhawking scene it is entertaining to see others lay out for balls. The best part is seeing the happy faces of small kids receiving a big league ball. 
DSCN2463.JPG
Every Sunday in D.C. is “Signature Sundays.” There was a sparse crowd that early for the 1:35 game so we thought, what the heck, let’s chat it up with some ballplayers. Relievers Tyler Clippard, Brad Broderick, Tom Gorzelanny and Sean Burnett were waiting for fans on the dugout. This is me with former Pirate Sean Burnett. He was very outspoken, trashing the organization from his time with Pittsburgh. I confirmed it. He did say he enjoyed his time, but its not a baseball town. Come on Pirates, change his mind this year.
Thumbnail image for DSCN2461.JPG
DSCN2465.JPG
Like I said, Nationals Park is a great place to watch a game and an even better museum for the great game of baseball. Honoring their former comrades of Montreal, Joe Carter and Andre Dawson are forever engraved in the walls of the stadium. And in a very cordial move, it honors a slew of Hall of Famers on the polls around the main concourse. As you can see, I had to grab a pic of “The Great One,” Roberto Clemente.
DSCN2468.JPG
Milwaukee has the Sausages. Cleveland has hot dogs. San Diego has Friars. Colorado has dots. Of course Pittsburgh has pierogies, but no racing item in Major League baseball is more politically correct than the presidents of Washington. Now, I am a loyal homer, but the race here is very anticlimactic. The jumbotron pre-race video is very funny but the race itself does not correlate with the goofy antics of the presidents, themselves. Come on, look at Teddy Roosevelt. 
DSCN2477.JPG
Andrew and I noticed the crowd in Washington is very intelligent. And we’re not necessarily referring to baseball smarts. A majority of the crowd looked like college professors and there were many people wearing local university attire to attest to that. Some fans even brought books to read during the game. We had great conversations with some people at the game. D.C. is a melting pot for many people across the country so being a Nationals fan looks to mean that they play second fiddle in many hearts.
DSCN2489.JPG
The game itself was a laugher in the home team’s expense. For the Nationals, the most rewarding part of the game may have been the Virginia Harmonizers who sang the National Anthem and God Bless America in the 7th inning. They were a great male vocal group who performs for the president. The game was an 11-2 shellacking. The Braves we
re paced by a six run 8th inning where they batted around. There was great production from top to bottom. Tim Hudson also pitched a gem. He surrendered just three hits in seven innings.
The baseball fun didn’t stop there.
DSCN2501.JPG
We jumped on the beltway and made the 45 minute trip to Camden Yards. There was not a game there as the Orioles were finishing up a series in Tampa, but there was still much activity in the stadium’s vicinity. I felt like we were in the opening scene of “Rookie of the Year” as workers were hustling preparing the ballpark for the team’s home opener against the Tigers.
DSCN2494.JPG
Andrew is a Yankee fan. His family is embedded in the pinstripes and their loyalty never wanes. Being in an AL East foe’s stomping grounds didn’t stop him from enjoying himself, though. As Babe Ruth’s birthplace, Baltimore is a historically rich baseball town. The statue honoring the Babe proves just that. 
After a lap around Camden Yards we called it a day and left the area making the three hour trip back to Morgantown, West Virginia. It was a little somber leaving a day that was filled with baseball, but it served as a prelude to the glory that this Thursday will hold. It’s opening day in Pittsburgh. The faith is still growing for fans across the nation. If your team is undefeated, congrats. If your team has yet to win a game, that’s why they play 162 games. The season is still young but many eyes have opened with sparks of hope seen inside. 
DSCN2478.JPG
This really is the most wonderful time of the year.

Optimism stems from Wrigley win

neil od.jpg

Until today, only one player had hit a grand slam on Opening Day.
That was Roberto Clemente.
It was only fitting that the new “pride of the Pirates” would launch the first four run bomb since 1962. It was the framework for a 6-3 Pittsburgh victory in Chicago. 
The top of the 5th inning proved to be a critical frame with pressing at bats coming from the guys in front of Walker. The inning began with Ryan Doumit reaching second base. Shortstop Ronny Cedeno drew a walk even after falling behind quickly, 0-2. Pitcher Kevin Correia laid down a beautiful bunt which moved the runners over. Another walk from leadoff man and left fielder Jose Tabata loaded the bases.
After a six pitch at bat, Walker dropped a bomb on Sheffield Ave.
Andrew McCutchen had a dinger of his own giving the Bucs every single run off of home runs. Sevem total hits came timely as every one was crucial to make a statement in the opening win.
It’s just what the Pirates need.
Many fans are dragging their feet into this season expecting the same-old-same-old. You can’t blame them after 18 years it’s hard to find a silver lining. Even in the dreary and overcast skies of Chicago today, you could see sparks of brilliance that are ready to stay. 
It’s just one game but collective smiles are on many faces who bleed black and gold. It opened eyes and may have shown that there truly is promise on this team. At post game interviews, manager Clint Hurdle talked about “joy.” The team needs to enjoy this. Special things could happen and while this win may not set the tone for the rest of the season, it certainly can’t hurt.
So Pittsburgh, be happy. It’s Opening Day, after all. 
AP Photo
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.