Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Meals incident should inspire change

While attending last Sunday's Pirates-Cardinals game at PNC Park, my brother said something that I initially brushed off nonchalantly.

As the two teams headed to extra innings tied at 3, he said, "Baseball should allow ties after a certain amount of innings."

To be clear, I don't agree with adding a third column to the standings, and I told him as such. But after the Bucs and Braves drudged through 19 innings last night, I've begun to think that an inning threshold might be a good idea to preserve the quality of competition.

As last night's game crept toward its unsatisfying conclusion (more on that later), the action in extras was at times much less than compelling. Sure, there were chances constructed and jams escaped, but to the naked eye it appeared fatigue was mitigating what should've been a pulsating battle between two National League postseason hopefuls.

I'm thinking if the game was suspended after, say, 12 or 15 innings, the two teams would be more than happy to return this evening to complete the contest after a night's rest. After the suspended game was finished, the day's/night's scheduled tilt would start immediately afterward.

Of course, if the suspended game is the last of a series, that would complicate matters. However, as is the case with rescheduling rainouts, dates and times could be found to complete the game if necessary to division or wild card races.

All of which brings me to Tuesday night's home plate umpire Jerry Meals. I'm certain that Meals would've seen the controversial play involving Pirates catcher Mike McKenry and Atlanta's Julio Lugo a little more clearly without the wear of seven hours of baseball weighing on his mind and body.

The most offensive part of last night's Pirates loss (aside from manager Clint Hurdle's absurd bunting fascination) was that it's highly unlikely Meals calls Lugo safe if the game hadn't extended beyond all reasonable expectations.

Quite simply, the subconscious desire to end the game and head back to the hotel got the better of Meals. Fatigue makes cowards of us all, as Vince Lombardi once said, and Meals was afraid to make the right call.

Here's hoping baseball can be reasonable and not expect perfect judgments from its arbiters once games turn into marathons.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Pittsburgh sports podcast: Three Rivers, One Show for July 25

Former Sports Haze Pittsburgh colleague Matt Shetler and I talk Pittsburgh sports every week on the Three Rivers, One Show podcast.

This week's edition features heavy Pirates talk, including their needs at the trade deadline and the return of Pedro Alvarez to the lineup. The Steelers' potential course of action as the NFL lockout comes to an end is another prominent topic on the show, which was recorded Monday evening.

Listen to internet radio with mshetler on Blog Talk Radio

Monday, July 25, 2011

A fitting send-off

This week, my wife and I will end our two-year stay in Youngstown, Ohio, as we will be moving back to Grand Rapids, Mich., where we began our married lives three years ago.

We arrived in Aug. 2009 for job reasons (mine) and are leaving for job reasons (hers), and I'll always regret that it didn't work out here in northeast Ohio. Pittsburgh is about an hour's drive away, as is my hometown of Weirton, W.Va., making both destinations accessible, yet not close enough to spend a ton of time at either.

In a way that distance is symbolic, because while the location was almost ideal for me, the reality is this situation never came close to playing out as I imagined it when I took a media relations/broadcasting position with the USHL's Youngstown Phantoms two summers ago.

After a tumultuous year with the dysfunctional Phantoms franchise, I left the team in hopes of finding something better. There were a couple close calls last summer (and I'm still waiting on some other pending opportunities), but my wife and I recently decided it was time to prioritize her work and head back to Michigan.

It's been tough over the last few months knowing that in all likelihood I was about to move several hundred miles away from my family and my favorite city, but I tried to make the most of it with frequent trips home and to Pittsburgh.

Attending Pirates games was a large benefit to living in Youngstown; although the journey wasn't the easiest to make, especially during the week, I managed to make about 20-25 appearances at PNC Park in the last 24 months.

Included in those twentysomething games were six in this season of rekindled #BuccoFever, with the most recent being yesterday afternoon with my wife, dad and brother. It was during that Sunday afternoon tilt (my favorite kind) that I experienced something new.

Two weeks prior, the Pirates defeated the Cubs 9-1 with my brother and me in attendance at PNC, giving them an over-.500 record at the all-star break. For the first time, we watched a game of significance at the 11-year-old Best Ballpark in America(TM).

But even though that afternoon was goosebump-inducing, it was still missing something: namely, an opponent that was battling the Bucs for first place in the National League Central. The Cardinals entered the frame this weekend to provide that final piece to the puzzle.

To put it simply, it was all there yesterday, including a stifling combination of heat and humidity which added an atmosphere of attrition to the proceedings.

Actually, I should mention that something was missing on this Sunday of new frontiers. The Pirates offense, hamstrung by injuries and a lineup-wide dearth of power, was only half-present. Still, the home side managed to tie St. Louis three different times after falling behind by a single run.

Starter Charlie Morton provided some unlikely offense (a sacrifice fly) to counteract his lack of control (five walks). Recent free-agent signing Jason Grilli bailed Morton out with 1 2/3 innings of staunch relief, followed by single scoreless frames from Chris Resop, Joel Hanrahan and Joe Beimel to give the Pirates an opportunity to walk off with a win in the bottom of the 10th.

Xavier Paul's improbable one-out infield single gave the 35,000-plus some hope, a deserved award for enduring more than three hours of oppressive temperatures. That hope turned to delirious expectation when Paul swiped second base and took third on Cards catcher Gerald Laird's throwing error.

Chase d'Arnaud, who has been overmatched at times during his first month in the majors, was at the plate needing a medium-depth fly ball to keep the Pirates from being swept at home for the first time all year in a three-game series.

d'Arnaud delivered just that with a liner to center, his second RBI of the game on top of solid defensive play at third. The Pirates had won a game against a contending division rival in dramatic fashion.

It doesn't sound like much, but after over a decade of fruitless fandom, it was the fulfillment of years of personal dreams and expectations. My Pirates are in first place, the fourth day of the last 10 such a statement could be made.

They are still long shots to make the postseason, as the Cardinals, Brewers and Reds all figure to hang tough through the final two months, but for this fan of the Bucs, being on hand for Sunday's triumph was the best possible going-away present.

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Matt Gajtka hosts the Polish Prodigy Podcast on Blog Talk Radio.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

NHL podcast: Gospel of Hockey for July 22

After a three-week hiatus, co-hosts Matt Gajtka and Larry Snyder are back with a summertime edition of the Gospel of Hockey.

Writer/blogger Ryan Clark of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead makes his encore appearance to discuss, amont other things, the unrest on the college hockey landscape. Who will be the winners and losers when NCAA reshuffling begins?

Also, the boys will explore recent NHL news, including the new Winnipeg Jets and the current state of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets.

Listen to internet radio with Matt Gajtka on Blog Talk Radio

Friday, July 22, 2011

Heaven can wait (but Pedro can't)

Pirates fans have ample reason to be antsy at the moment, no matter how many years of losing we may have personally endured. (I hopped on board in 1998.) After all, the Bucs are tied for the NL Central lead with nine weeks to go and 10 days until the non-waiver trade deadline.

Understandably, the public's desire is great to add a weapon or two for the season's final two months.

Pushing this urgency to a higher level are the next 10 games on the schedule, starting with tonight's (Friday's) collision with the third-place Cardinals at PNC Park. Following this weekend's series with St. Louis - just one game back of the Pirates and Brewers for first - Pittsburgh takes to the road for four games in Atlanta and three in Philadelphia to close out July.

With this gauntlet leading up to the trade deadline, naturally there have been rampant calls for general manager Neal Huntington to move quickly to augment the Bucco roster before the team takes on the best of the NL East.

But beyond the Brewers' dealing for a glorified setup man in Francisco Rodriguez during the all-star break, the trade market has been very quiet in recent weeks. It's apparent that teams interested in being "buyers" are holding out until deadline pressures lower the asking prices for players available on the market.

This delay shouldn't make Pirates fans uneasy. In fact, it should have the contrary effort for a couple of reasons:

1. Huntington isn't simply taking the first deal available. There is much (deserved) speculation about how the Pirates' fourth-year GM will handle his first trade deadline as a playoff contender. The fact that Huntington hasn't let his eagerness to deal get the better of him so far is an encouraging sign.

2. Despite the ominous stretch currently upon the Pirates, there will still be two months left of baseball after July 31. Even if Pittsburgh goes 3-7 or 2-8 against the Cards, Braves and Phillies, they will still very likely be in a position to make a run at the Central crown. Obviously, any help the Buccos could get over the next 10 days would be welcomed, but the season will not be determined by the first week of August.

Looking further ahead, the entire month of August figures to be grueling for the Pirates, with home series versus the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers and road series at San Francisco, Milwaukee and St. Louis lurking in the next five weeks.

With that in mind, it wouldn't be prudent for Huntington to rush into anything. Any new players are likely to make their presences felt more significantly in the final 56 games, as opposed to the next 10.

On the other hand, the sooner that rehabbing third baseman Pedro Alvarez gets called back up, the better. The Pirates are presently trotting out replacement level offense at 3B, and an upgrade with no tangible cost is waiting at Triple-A Indianapolis.

Sure, Pedro may struggle as the season wears on, but for a team near the bottom of MLB in slugging and runs created, not using the organization's best power threat is inexcusable.

Assuming Alvarez is completely healthy, he needs to be working out his problems while simultaneously helping the big club.

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Matt Gajtka is a featured writer for Sports Haze Pittsburgh. He also hosts the Polish Prodigy Podcast on Blog Talk Radio.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On bandwagons

I must admit I feel some initial animosity toward the people suddenly talking, tweeting and writing about the Pirates and their unexpected success so far this season.

"Where were all these 'fans' before this season?" I've been asking myself that question and many more like it in the past few weeks especially.

Of course, I know where these bandwagon jumpers came from. They were the same folks making corny, ill-informed jokes about the Bucs for the last decade or more. The Pirates certainly deserved some dismissive treatment under the vision-deprived guidance of former general managers Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield.

But since current GM Neal Huntington was hired in late 2007 by majority owner Bob Nutting (who seized control of the Pirates' board earlier that year), the yinzer ignorance became a little too self-satisfied for my liking. It was as if Pittsburghers would rather cling to their bad humor than admit the new regime was actually going about its business in a sound manner.

Now the Pirates are in first place in the National League Central, predictably the crowds at PNC Park are increasing and everyone's Facebook status suddenly proclaims their Bucco pride. Certainly not all of these people were hunkered down in the diehard foxhole for the last 18 years.

In the end, though, the energy and enthusiasm currently surrounding this club outweighs any disingenuous members of the good ship Jolly Roger, at least in my mind. Certainly most of the newcomers cared about the team enough to make fun of it in years previous.

To me, the gratuitous bandwagoning that accompanied the U.S. Women's National Team's exhilarating run to last weekend's World Cup final is much more questionable than the sudden growth of the Pirates' fan base.

Americans understandably love to rally around the Red, White & Blue no matter the sport (see the neverending success of the Olympics), but to hear even non-sports followers wax rhapsodic about Abby Wambach and Hope Solo carries more than a faint whiff of fraudulence.

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with having some ebb and flow to your interest in a particular sport, but frankly I feel for the hardworking women of the USWNT when the nation's attention seemingly goes from five to 100 percent in the span of minutes.

So, to all the Twitterati who were full of candor during the World Cup, I sincerely hope we hear from you at some point prior to 2015.

Speaking of 2015, if the Pirates have a struggling season or two between now and then, I fully expect the groan-inducing quips to return even after this renaissance summer.

To quote Jerry Seinfeld, "Not that there's anything wrong with that." At least they'll still be talking about the Bucs, which is more than Wambach, Solo and company will likely be able to say.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pirates making winning look routine

These are surreal times for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fan base, what with media entities from ESPN and spinoff Grantland.com to FoxSports.com and even “Live with Regis and Kelly” weighing in on the Bucs’ completely unexpected contention for the National League Central title.

I, like most longtime Pirates’ followers, have been staggering around in this bright light of publicity, squinting and blinking to make sure all of it is real.

It’s jarring enough that my once woebegone team holds first place in the division on July 19; seeing that iconic capital ‘P’ displayed prominently is so many more places than usual takes the current state of affairs to a new level of disbelief.

Even amidst all the ancillary noise, the most interesting part of the Pirates’ surge into league-wide relevance has been my perception of this year’s team compared to last season’s 105-loss outfit. Honestly, it doesn’t feel as different as I thought it would when the Buccos finally made a run.

Perhaps this will change if general manager Neal Huntington brings in a recognizable face prior to the July 31 trade deadline, but the 2011 Pirates have been almost remarkable in the unremarkable way they’ve gone about the business of winning.

The pitching staff, with the notable exception of bullpen ace Joel Hanrahan, doesn’t strike anybody out. The entire offense, despite a recent uptick in run scoring, suffers from a chronic lack of power pending Pedro Alvarez’ return to the majors.

This team, on pace for about a 30-game improvement over last year, features so many of the same names and faces from 2010 – pitchers like Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens and position players Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Jose Tabata.

McCutchen’s exciting rise to stardom notwithstanding, the Pirates offense isn’t producing significantly better than last year’s bunch, although the Bucs are certainly more competent at the plate this time around.

But the real story (and it is well-chronicled) has been how a pitching staff that was dead last of MLB’s 30 teams in ERA last summer has jumped all the way to eighth so far, despite not dramatically improving in any peripheral category besides simple run prevention.

If the Pirates do manage to jump from 57 wins to a division title – or even a simple winning season – it will likely be on the strength of much-improved defensive efficiency.

Defense has long been a nebulous part of baseball, as it is difficult to separate the effect of pitching on run prevention from what position players are able to contribute with their gloves. Thankfully, the hard work of sabermetricians over the years has yielded metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating and Baseball Prospectus’ Defensive Efficiency, in which Pittsburgh ranks 10th after a dismal showing in 2010.

The 1991 Atlanta Braves and 2008 Tampa Bay Rays provided two of the biggest single-season turnarounds in baseball history, and their quick improvements were primarily based upon defensive renaissances, so there is promising precedent in what the Bucs are doing.

Without a huge increase in strikeouts and home runs over 2010, the Pirates have built their 50-44 record in a decidedly non-flashy way. But last year’s San Francisco Giants taught us that an above-average offense isn’t necessary to compete for a World Series.

Speaking of those champion Giants, they lead the NL West with a 56-41 record and a plus-17 run differential, a better measure of how well a team is truly playing. A stunning 26-12 record in one-run games has helped San Francisco outperform its run differential numbers.

The Pirates’ plus-14 differential is essentially identical to the Giants’ mark, but their won-lost record is pretty much where it should be, according to that measure at least. (Based on more advanced stats, the Bucs have perhaps been even more fortunate than San Fran.)

No matter their ultimate legitimacy, though, the Pirates have won 50 games before July 20 for the first time since 1992 without fireballing starters, slugging regulars or excessive late-game heroics. A combination of pitch-to-contact effectiveness and defensive efficiency has boosted the Black and Gold to contender status.

It all looks so routine, and that’s the most interesting part of it all.

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Matt Gajtka is a featured writer and Penguins beat reporter for Sports Haze Pittsburgh. He also hosts the Polish Prodigy Podcast on Blog Talk Radio.