By Richard A. Mathews
Tell me this doesn’t sound too good to be true. Our beloved Bucco’s have a winning record after Memorial Day vs. all comers except the Chicago Cubs. The pitching star of the rotation is a castoff, a guy cut by the Reds, a guy who has had Tommy John surgery and he now owns a 3.44 era. The bench hero is another guy pickup on waivers but already owning 14 rbi over just 47 abs. The “bum” lone off season pickup utility infielder is hitting .308 and the “bum” lefty relieve pitcher from last year is 4-2 with a 1.71 era after one of his only blown hold efforts of the year.
Yep, I’m hooked on this team and if you might be enjoying this season also, let’s spend a few more moments giving this Bucco team at least a little credit for their efforts.
Coming into the 2008 season, my number one concern about this club was could they find a way to score often or for that matter at all.
Never in my wildest dreams did I hope for the type of production the outfield of Bay, McLouth and Nady has provided.
Then again, I never, ever expected to see Nate McLouth posting Andru Jones type offensive numbers ranking among the elite in the National League for:
Avg - .303
OBP - .394
Runs - 50
Doubles – 19
HR – 14
RBI – 45
Add in the fact McLouth is playing at worst above average defensive center fielder and he has to be considered the most improved player in the National League.
Nady’s production has been simply excellent although not quite as surprising. With his .320 average, 18 doubles, 14 homers and 45 rbi, Xavier is proving this former “BA 2005 Can’t Miss Minor League Prospect” tag as a future MLB All Star was correct.
The return to All Star form of Jason Bay hitting nearly .300 with a .400 obp, 14 dingers and 34 rbi makes the Bucs outfield the most productive currently in MLB.
If the Pirates had not had injuries to Ryan Doumit and Jack Wilson, there is every reason to contend this team would own a record over .500 and likely be no more than a couple games back of the Chicago Cubs.
Then again if LaRoche, Sanchez and Bautista had come anywhere near their expected levels of production, the team very well could still be over .500.
Yet even another disappointing early start of LaRoche’s season might be coming to a close as over the past ten games the big man has begun to finally look like his swing might be back to last year’s second half form.
A Pirate team with LaRoche playing no better than he has average in each of the past four years from June through September has as good if not a better potential 3-7 lineup as any in the National League now that Ryan Doumit is back.
Doumit’s early season success was encouraging. Pulling a .333 average over 111 AB’s is significant especially for a player known as a slow starter.
Bautista’s early season struggles might have been enough to begin the maturing process this gifted athlete desperately needs. Jose has to mature as every other successful hitter in the game has done learning to adjust to the league tactics to get him out.
The play of Michaels, Gomez, Rivas, Chavez and Mientkiewic all are notable.
Michaels pickup has paid enough in dividends it is accurate to say he added three wins with his bat to the Bucs total over his first seven weeks on the team. Michaels has filled in well for Nady, Bay and even McLouth. Then again, his pinch hits including his recent grand slam add power to an otherwise powerless bench.
While both Gomez and Rivas struggled in the field trying to fill in for the Jack Wilson, both men hit better than expected at times. With Sanchez continuing to struggle at the plate and leading the team in the field, Gomez might find himself back at second giving Freddie a few games off.
Chavez might just be the perfect answer to the biggest problem the team faced, a new pitching coach with “O” big league experience. Chavez in your face, lose with your best stuff attitude makes a fine complement to “Air “Andrews”.
The veteran presence of Doug Mientkiewicz can’t be measured by his batting average or fielding average. Every team trying to learn to win needs at least one player who has won and actually knows what it takes in commitment to win and win it all.
The number two concern about this Pirate team was lack of experience by the coaching staff particularly the pitching coach.
No less an authority on the role of pitching coaches than Bucco announcer Steve Blass if fond of saying,
“A big league pitching coach’s job is more about working with the mental makeup of pitchers than actually adjusting mechanics. Reality is if a pitcher doesn’t know how to pitch when he gets to the majors, his stay isn’t going to be very long.”
Andrews with “O” big league experience and “O” advance scouting on opposing hitters was a problem everyone but the Pirate front office recognized immediately.
The Bucs new front office simply blew it cutting out a critical information link between the experienced advance scouting most teams rely on to give a veteran pitching coach the information he needs to prepare a customized plan of attach which his staff can implement.
When you personally don’t know the hitters your pitchers are throwing against and have no scouting on the current tendencies of hitters, your pitchers are going to struggle and struggle often especially early.
There was never any question Andrews knew and had significant experience with the four Bucco younger members of the starting staff. Now he just might be learning enough about opposing hitters to actually begin to do the basic pre-game analysis to prevent the early inning blowups too frequently occurring with especially Gorzelanny.
The thought of the big four pulling it together consistently the remainder of the season is very exciting for this Bucco fan.
Add it the fact a fellow named Phil Dumatrait might just have better stuff than any of the four members of the staff and the possibilities have me hooked on this team’s 2008 season.
I didn’t predict any of the above and will not lie to the Pirate Nation contending the end of the losing streak is upon us at last.
All I do know is, “This Bucco team should be able to play .500+ baseball if nobody gets hurt and misses major time such as McLouth or Bay or one of the starting pitchers.”
I can’t promise this team will actually scratch and claw its way into at least a theoretical battle for a Wild Card Shot.
What I do know is, on your Pittsburgh Pirates right now are a few of the players having as good or better a year than any other players in the National League.
While the talking heads of in Pittsburgh continue to complain about pitchers like Duke and Maholm I challenge you to look up were both men actually rank in era among NL starting pitchers.
The answer for those who do not wish to make such an effort is #29 and # 30.
With 16 teams playing in the NL that mean the Bucs currently have three men ranked as follows for era 30th, 29th and 8th – Dumatrait among the 80 NL pitchers with enough innings to be ranked.
Sorry gang but in my book that isn’t too bad considering Gorzo and Snell both had era’s under 4.00 last year and should bounce back to at least approximate their former success the rest of the year.
As a second I’m sorry, but Matt Capps is worth the price of admission just to watch this guy attempt to earn a save. Capps remains a perfect 14 of 14 and just might be as much fun to watch as any Bucco closer since Goose Gossage.
I’m hooked on Bucco Baseball again.
I hope you are too.
Enjoy the season.
Peace be with you.