Monday, April 27, 2009

BUCCOS CLOSING IN ON DIVISION TITLE; TEAM SEEKS LEAGUE PERMISSION TO PRINT PLAYOFF TICKETS


Okay, okay, it's still early. I know. But holy cow, who would have thought this team was capable of this good of a start? The Pirates, sporting the BEST pitching staff in baseball (lowest e.r.a., most quality starts) have an 11-7 record (.611) and are only a half game behind St. Louis for first place with 11% of the season already completed! This after having the WORST pitching staff last year (with the same basic guys).

Of course as I already said, it's early. Because bad stuff can happen during a long major league campaign, like, for instance, losing two of your four "core players" early in the season (this has already happened with Ryan Doumit's broken wrist and Nate McLouth's sprained oblique muscle).



Above: Ryan Doumit in less-meaty days. He's filled-in since this picture was taken, stopped shaving regularly, too.

Then again you could also possibly lose your starting shortstop just like last year (this has already happened too, as Jack Wilson has a badly sprained finger). No problem, as we have the very competent Ramon Vasquez to plug in.

You can always rely on Adam LaRoche's annual, terrible, first half to contend with. Not true as LaRoche is off to his best start ever batting .270 going into yesterday's win where he hit a three-run homer). It won't get him in the Hall of Fame, but it beats .170.

Above: The Bucs hope to get Nate McLouth back soon. He tweaked a rib cage muscle and the team is hoping it's not too serious. He missed the entire San Diego series.

The Andy LaRoche trade: Now that's been an unmitigated disaster too. Not so fast there buddy. Andy has relaxed at the plate and in the field. He's starting to have the look of an everyday veteran and showing why Neil Huntington was interested in him in the first place.


Above: Third baseman, Andy LaRoche, chats with injured shortstop, Jack Wilson. NO!!! YOU CAN'T PULL MY FINGER!

Yesterday, with Doumit and McLouth already missing from the lineup, Manager John Russell had the unmitigated gall to rest Freddie Sanchez who's only been hitting the cover off the ball with a .345 average while leading the NL in doubles. No problemo. Brian Bixler, himself a real letdown last year, came in to play second and responded by hitting a triple yesterday over the head of Brian Giles in right field. In short, the Pirates manager and his players can do no wrong right now. As for his coaching staff? I feel it's already safe to say that they have assembled the best coaching staff since the days when Ray Miller was nodding to Mike Lavallier behind the dish. These guys are pitching, fielding, hitting, throwing to the proper cutoff man, hitting behind the runner, hitting sacrifice flies, moving runners over...even the popcorn at PNC Park tastes better! The Pirates entire coaching staff has done one of the most incredible coaching jobs that this city has ever seen!

What can you say about Nyjer Morgan at leadoff? The guy looks right now like the best leadoff man for the Pirates in the last twenty years with his combination of hits, on base percentage and raw speed that you dream about for this position. Will it continue? If he can continue playing the way he is both offensively and defensively, it'll be hard for anyone to ever take him out of the starting lineup ever, EVER! We should all hope that it continues!



Above: Nyjer Morgan wears his pants like a throwback, plays like a throwback even has a card that looks like a throwback!

Talking about pleasant surprises, Craig Monroe has been a terrific addition to the team, he had a two-homer game a week ago with a curtain call from an appreciative PNC crowd, and has also played excellent defense. He also has an above-average arm and reacts quickly to the circumstances in the field. He brings plenty of power to the plate and has played both right and left fields.

No one expected to see a whole lot of Jason Jaramillo this year but with the Doumit injury, he's been pressed into duty. He too has been doing a terrific job at the plate and is probably an upgrade over Doumit defensively. He doesn't have the long-ball power yet that Doumit possesses, however, he's been a doubles machine and has exceeded the team's wildest expectations so far.

So who's not doing well? It's a pretty short list really. Of the outfielders, Brandon Moss hasn't gotten himself untracked yet and there have been a few bad relief stints, but the starting pitching has been so strong that there haven't been that many opportunities to thoroughly evaluate the middle or long relievers.

In short, the positives thus far in the season have been so amazing, that watching this Pirates team has been like watching Boston Rex Sox players wearing Pirates uniforms. Watching these guys beating the tar out of San Diego on Saturday and Sunday was an experience that's been so foreign that I can't remember the last time a Pirates team so thoroughly dominated every facet of the game as they did over the weekend. They've already had a large number of blowout games this season.

Hey, there's plenty of time for things to go wrong, sure. But for a team that was expected to win nothing to start out this strong...well it's just pretty amazing. You've got to feel that with Frank Coonelly and Neil Huntington at the helm that the worm may have finally turned. You've got to be happy for the players, the coaching staff and management too. They've all worked hard and they deserve their success.

When the big team's going well, it has to resonate throughout the entire organization with this message, "Do you want to crack the majors with the Pirates? If you do, you'd better be bringing your "A" game to the park every day or plan on making Altoona, or Lynchburg, or Indianapolis your permanent home." There can be no better motivating factor for young players.

Yes it may still be plenty early, but writing this kind of a column beats the daylights out of writing another story complaining about the bumbling, stumbling Pirates again!