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Bucs grab early first place tie in NL Central

by David Rath
Ian snell is standing at the end of a dark hallway, having been wandering around in a maze for hours. He's wearing only briefs and a baseball glove, and at the other end of the hallway is a minotaur-esque creature with the head of Albert Pujols. The Albertaur charges, and just as he's about to reach Snell, the Pitcher wakes up... "Just a bad dream...", he thinks to himself. Well, the reality later that night was not too much better. Albert Pujols must be like a kid in a candy store when he finds out his team is going to be facing Ian Snell. I won't go into the numbers. Not Tuesday night's, not their career numbers when facing each other. It's been documented well enough, going back at least to last season. Suffice to say John Russell and Joe Kerrigan may want to shift Snell to the end of the rotation if he's in line to face the cardinals.

Tonight's bout went considerably better for Zach Duke and the Pirates. The offense is starting to take on the look of a juggernaut. Freddy Sanchez singled in the first, and two outs later Ryan Doumit doubled. Sanchez would have scored on that AB, if not for an unfortunate bounce over the outfield wall that awarded Doumit a book-rule double. By rule, Sanchez can only advance 2 bases, so he was forced to come back to third base and the score remained tied at zero. Unfortunately now twice in three games the Bucs have had at least one runner in scoring position with two outs in the first, and have failed to capitalize. Good thing for Zach Duke that the surprisingly effective Jack Wilson had his part in the top of the second. Wilson started out the scoring in the 4-run fourth, tapping a single to score Brandon Moss. Nyjer Morgan, Freddy Sanchez, and Ryan Doumit then followed suit with three more run scoring singles, and the Bucs were in action with a 4-run lead heading into the bottom of the second. The Cards managed to chip away at Duke, scoring an unearned run each in the second and fifth innings. The first runner reached on a called catcher interference when the batter's swing came around and hit Doumit's mitt on the follow-through, then in the fifth Duke's piping hot fastball for a strike three bounced inexplicably off of Doumit's chestguard and dribbled down the first base line, allowing the batter to reach first.

Wilson added another RBI in the third, again driving in Moss, who doubled to lead off the inning. Sanchez, who finished the day 4-for-5 and is hitting .571 over the first three games of the season, doubled to lead off the sixth. Nate McLouth, still looking for his first hit of the '09 campaign, stepped up and drilled an 0-1 pitch over the right field wall for a 2-run dinger and a 7-2 Pirates lead.

The Cards did manage to score two more runs, making the final score 7-4. It is encouraging, however, that the Bucs' staff was right on point to stop the bleeding at one run each time the Redbirds threatened. It was a very nice outing for Zach Duke. He seemed to have great control, pounding the inside of the strike zone all day against righties. Any time a guy can hold reigning NL MVP Albert Pujols to one hit in four trips, mark it down as a plus. Especially following the kind of night Pujols had the day before. It sure can't hurt Duke's confidence either, to catch Pujols looking at strike three in the first inning, on three pitches no less.
Duke's line:
6.1IP 5H 3R 1ER 2BB 4K 1.42ERA

So three games in, the pitching staff isn't looking half bad (only 1/3 bad, in fact). If Maholm and Duke can keep tossing as well as they did in this first week, things may actually go well for this team. I expect the offensive numbers to start dropping off a bit, in which case the run support department will need the staff to keep the games close. I also expect Snell to perform a bit better in the future, but I'm sticking to my idea to keep him away from Pujols and the Cards at all costs.

These Pirates can't do any worse than split the season-opening series with a team that many have picked as a likely first or second-place finisher in the division and at least a wild-card selection for October ball. The Pirates currently share first place in the division with the Chicago Cubs. Not too shabby.