Monday, July 14, 2008

All-Star Breakin'

Coming at you live from the Steak Escape on MacCorkle Ave. in Charleston, W.Va...

Pirates reach the All-Star Break with excitement, resilience...and a 44-50 record
Our Buccos finished the first half-ending homestand 4-4. That's 2-1 against the Astros (see last week's liveblog for the only loss), plus a victory in Thursday's make-up game with the Yanks, followed by taking only one of three from St. Louis.

The last nine words of the previous paragraph are about as clinical and matter-of-fact as language goes, but they fall well short in describing the true nature of the series, most notably Saturday night's all-time great 12-11 comeback victory in 10 innings.

Since Major League Baseball keeps an apparent iron grip on its highlights, the only embedded video possiblities were provided by people aiming their camcorders at the TV screen or picking up some shoddy video phone recording from their box seats at PNC Park. So, just go to http://mlb.mlb.com/media/video.jsp and search for "Cardinals-Pirates 7-12-08."

Now that you've witnessed one of the better wins in the history of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club, allow me this digression:

After my too-short stint with the Fayetteville SwampDogs came to a disappointing conclusion last month, I returned to West Virginia with a skeptical attitude toward the game of baseball. Considering the depressing way in which I was treated in my first job as a professional broadcaster, it was understandable that I wasn't too excited about another summer of watching the Pirates build my hope and then inevitably tear it down by the end of July with on- and off-the-field blunders. In my mind, 2008 was doomed to be more of the same from the North Siders.

But an interesting thing occurred on the way to what still might be a 16th-consecutive losing season: the Pirates revealed themselves as a truly captivating team. Powered by an offense not seen in western Pennsylvania since Bonds and Van Slyke surveyed the Three Rivers Stadium outfield, Our Buccos are, at least to this most biased of observers, legitimately fun to watch.

Over the past decade-plus, the Pirates (like every team in MLB) would come up with a handful of thrilling wins over the course of otherwise underwhelming summers. To wit: Brian Giles capping a six-run ninth with a walkoff grand slam to beat Houston 9-8 in late July of 2001, or Jason Kendall lining an RBI single to score Tike Redman and beat Colorado 11-10 in what feels like 2005. This year, that brand of victory has been showing up on a seemingly biweekly basis and persistently pumping new life into a season that should have been in the grave (or at least dependent on an intravenous drip) by the end of May.

Three-fifths of what was supposed to at least be an above-average starting rotation (Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Phil Dumatrait) has battled/is battling arm problems, or in Gorzo's case, effectiveness and motivation issues. 2006 National League batting champion Freddy Sanchez is showing signs of rapid skill deterioration, sporting an on-base percentage nearly 100 points lower than his batting average two years ago. Adam LaRoche suffered through the most hapless first half of his career - now that's saying something. Closer Matt Capps is out for two months with shoulder irriation. The rest of the bullpen, save Damaso Marte and occasionally John Grabow, has been bouncing somewhere between unreliable and terrrrible since May ended.

Looking at all those factors, you would guess that the Pirates' record would be floating in the vicinity of 20 games below .500, but instead they're just six games under that fabled break-even point. Thanks largely to the Jason Bay-Nate McLouth-Xavier Nady outfield triumvirate, which has a better position-by-position OPS (that's on-base plus slugging) than tomorrow night's starting NL outfield, the '08 Bucs are conjuring memories of the Lumber Company teams of the 1970s.

Also, let's not forget the surgeance of Starting Catcher Ryan Doumit, who thankfully wrested control of the position from current-Indianapolis Indians backstop Joggin' Ronny Paulino. Doumit is looking like a future cornerstone, showing an improved plate presence and outstanding power. Jose Bautista is looking more and more comfortable, both offensively and at third base. Utilityman Doug Mientkiewicz has added some needed fire and intensity to the Bucco clubhouse. Zach Duke and especially Paul Maholm have regained their competent forms from seasons previous.

What lies ahead, including potential player movement at the trade deadline, is unknown. However, for now let's enjoy watching and supporting a ballclub that, perhaps for the first time since 1997, displays good camraderie and appears to actually battle for all 27 (or more) outs. More importantly, let's appreciate a Bucco offense that hits the crap out of the ball and makes opposing pitchers work.

Must be those 15 years of futility that are keeping the fans away: Pittsburgh is second-to-last in the NL in home attendance, at just over 19,000 a game. Only the Marlins, playing in the worst park in America now that the Nationals have moved out of RFK Stadium, draw fewer onlookers.

Podcasters Anonymous
Tonight, barring any unforeseen circumstances, Polish Prodigy Podcast No. 3 will be recorded from the Polish Prodigy Mobile Sound Studio. It'll be my fiancee Jillian Heeren and I discussing the relevant sports topics of the day, including tonight's Home Run Derby, from 4012 Venable Ave. in the Capital City of the Mountain State.

Log on tomorrow to give a listen! Until then, hit 'em straight.

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