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Two giant steps forward.

by David Rath
The last time the Pirates were 7-6, in 2008, was the last time they were above .500 for the entire remainder of that season. This evening, early in 2009, with a chance to defend their above-.500 record, they took a different step. This series the Pirates ushered in the hottest team in baseball, the Florida Marlins. Before coming to Pittsburgh, the Marlins were 11-1, on the verge of becoming the first team to reach 12-1 since 2003. When they leave Pittsburgh, they will leave with no less than three losses and a better understanding of the fact that these Pirates are not the Pirates of the last 16 seasons. After 14 games, each of Pittsburgh's starting pitchers has at least one win, and the team's ERA of 3.00 is tops in all the land. The Marlins tomorrow will face Paul Maholm, the top of the Pirates' rotation, and thus far, arguably the most consistent starter in the majors(3 quality starts, 2-0, 0.87ERA). Let's extrapolate. Say these starters can continue to garner 7 wins out of every 14 starts. This would equal a win percentage of .500. The bullpen has factored into only two of the games played. I would implore anyone to review past seasons' statistics and find a bullpen with only 2 decisions in 14 games over an entire season. In case you are wondering, the math comes out to about 24 bullpen decisions in 162 games. In short, this early-season statistic is evidence of a bullpen doing exactly what they are supposed to do. Given that a relief pitcher cannot put runs on the board for his team from the mound, it is simply academic to say that his job is to keep the score of the game exactly what it was at which point he entered. On a team with a starting rotation winning half of its games, and a bullpen more or less doing its part, the onus then falls on offensive production.

The Pirates' potential offensive production took a slight turn for the worse today, with the announcement that Ryan Doumit will miss the next 8-10 weeks in recovering from surgery on his injured wrist. The Bucs virtually sold out their big-league catching talent to take a chance on Doumit, mainly because of his bat. He hit .318 in 2008, with 15 home runs and 34 doubles in 431 ABs. His is a bat that any ballclub would miss from their line-up, but considering the lack of power and consistency from which the Pirates have suffered in recent seasons, and relatively little depth at the position, it could and is with good reason considered by some a big loss for the Pirates. Insert Jason Jaramillo, Doumit's backup, considered by most scouts a very good defensive prospect with very little to offer in terms of his bat, and things get interesting. Jaramillo, though, answered in his first start since Doumit's injury with a run-scoring double and a sparkling defensive effort. He called a terrific game tonight for starter Ross Ohlendorf's first W, and last night nailed a potential base-stealer as Dan Uggla was late in calling a time-out at the plate. End result- no time-out; a called strike and a runner caught stealing.

Also encouraging for the Pirates is the continued production from the top of the order. Nyjer Morgan is batting .328 in 61 at-bats, ranking second among all lead-off batters with as many or more at-bats. Freddy Sanchez is batting an '06-Freddy Sanchez-like .368, and tonight contributed his second home run of the season, for what would prove to be the game-winning run, and his 5th RBI. Add to the success of Morgan and Sanchez the relative success of the LaRoche brothers, Adam and Andy, and the Bucs' chances of pulling out a winning season become brighter. To watch Adam LaRoche at bat early in this season, one might start to think it was actually August. His lack of production in April and May since joining the Pirates has been well documented. At this point in 2009, however, he is hitting a respectable .255 with 3 HRs and 9 RBIs. He has been especially dangerous at home, hitting .345 within the confines of PNC park, including 2 of his 3 HRs and 7 of his 9 RBIs. One might recall that at the time of his acquisition(a trade from the Braves for then-promising closer Mike Gonzalez-more on that in a later blog post), the Pirates were desperately in need of a left-handed batter who could regularly take advantage of the lefty-friendly confines of PNC park. Third Baseman and younger brother Andy LaRoche had a miserable start to the 2009 season, to go right along with his difficult time after joining Pittsburgh late in 2008. He seems to have recently bounced back, however, and is now batting .216 in 37 ABs after a miserable 0-for-18 start. To go with his recent offensive surge, he turned in three spectacular defensive plays in the Pirates' 8-0 shutout of the Marlins on Monday.

Of course, it is far too early to make predictions. In spite of that fact, I'll make mine now. If anyone out there cares, here is my early season prediction: 86-76, good enough for 3rd place in the NL central.

***

And in an unrelated prediction: 3-0 Penguins on Thursday night, to dispatch the pesky Flyers and move onto the Conference semifinals, and ultimately, two more series wins over any and all comers, and an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals, which they will also win.

A Super Bowl, an elite-8 NCAA Basketball appearance, a Stanley Cup, and an above-.500 baseball club...would be a great year to be a Pittsburgh sports fan. Wouldn't it?

(equally unrelated disclaimer - I've been a Villanova Basketball fan since early childhood, with my Father, Mother's Father, and two of my mother's brothers being alumni[and more recently a younger cousin]...so i wasn't the least bit disappointed to see Pitt's basketball team lose that elite-8 matchup. For the record, I think Pitt would have been reffed out of the Final Four Matchup with UNC early in the second half just like Villanova was)