Sunday, April 6, 2008

what a difference a day makes...

ian snell
Ian Snell from Pittsburgh

It looked like a lineup that John Russell drew out of a hat. No Freddie Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Jason Bay, or Adam LaRoche. Ya know what? He oughta do it more often.

According to the Post Gazette's Dejan Kovacevic, Bay and LaRoche, the Pirates' struggling 3 & 4 hitters, didn't start because Bay had been scheduled to have the day off and LaRoche had a bum thumb.

"It's going to look like I'm doing this because of how things have gone for him," Russell told Kovacevic. "That's not the case."

Maybe it should have been. Remember that accountabilty thing?

Anyway, when the smoke cleared, the only starting position player with an under .300 average was Jose Bautista, compared to yesterday's lineup, which featured five guys hitting at or below the Mendoza line. Makes quite a difference when the middle of the order comes through for your team.

It wasn't flawless, and in fact was a competitive ballgame until the eighth. But the little things Pittsburgh did so poorly the first few games were at a minimum today. No big inning, no one going yard, only one walk.

It was Florida making the mistakes today. Shaky Marlin defense, including two Fish errors (one a booted DP ball that led to Pittsburgh's 4-run third inning), a wild pitch, a passed ball and a misplayed fly ball helped the Bucs, as did three walks and a plunked batter.

Heck, a coupla guys even made it to second without being thrown out today. Way to run 'em, Lou! There's a big difference between challenging Luis Gonzalez's below average arm in right and Brett Carroll's rifle.

And when is the last time Pirate hurlers followed a 14-K game with a 12-K effort? Getting some swings and misses is a sweet thing. Maybe the emphasis on power arms is helping not only physically, but fostering an aggressive mindset, too, an attitude of going right after guys instead of nibble, nibble, nibble.

The bench and bullpen, question marks early on, have held their own after a week of ball. Chris Gomez, our first free agent signing, is hitting .375 and third on the team with 5 RBIs. Luis Rivas' glove hasn't shone, but he's batting .313 with a .375 OBP. They've certainly made Jose Castillo and Matt Kata forgettable so far.

And with the exception of Rule 5 guy Evan Meek, the overworked pen has shown signs of life after a shaky start, even with its' 21-1/3 inning workload over 6 games.

Today's storyline is the middle of the order. Nate McLouth, Xavier Nady and Ryan Doumit are all hitting over .440. They have 18 RBIs and all 5 Buc homers.

A bit of backseat advice to John Russell - keep McLouth in the two spot (three when Morgan plays), bat Nady cleanup, then follow with LaRoche and Bay. Bixler or Rivas can man the two hole or leadoff, if need be. Sanchez can bat third, or Nady if Doumit catches and bats fifth.

And keep it that way until the big bats come out of their funk and the IF is out of the trainer's tub.

We cautioned they probably weren't as bad as they looked yesterday, but needed to tighten up. The Bucs still made a couple of mistakes today that might have cost them in a tight game.

Gomez was caught at third on an Ian Snell bunt (what is it about Pirates on second?) and Rivas booted a two-out ball to allow a Marlin score. That's a couple of runs thrown away. And our team ERA is still MLB's worst, at 6.65.

The Pirates are a team that needs to have the starting pitcher hand over a lead in the late innings, and we got that today from Snell. That and a middle of the order that showed its' stuff are today's - and the rest of season's - road to success.

If you haven't looked, the Bucs are 2 games out, behind the red-hot Brewers and Cards. They both opened at home, so we have yet to see what kind of road warriors they are. The Pirates have the same record after a half dozen games as the Evil Empire does. And what about Jim Leyland's collection of Motown zillionaires? The Tigers are 0-5 going into tonight's game.

On the player front:
Jack Wilson was placed on the 15-day disabled list in order to bring in some infield help. He's eligible to return for the Pirates' series in Chicago on April 19th. For ironman Wilson, who just recently played his 1,000th game in his eighth season as a Buc, it was his first ever trip to the DL.

The Pirates recalled shortstop Brian Bixler from AAA Indy. Oddly, it's his first call up to the bigs, having never even gotten a cup of coffee with Pittsburgh before this. He K'ed as a pinch hitter today, although he only got to Fishland about an hour before the game.

Russell plans to use him regularly at short. "We just can't continue to go shorthanded," Russell said to MLB's Jenifer Langosch. "This gives (Wilson) time to make sure he's completely healthy. And this gives us somebody here that can play every day. We need some guys that can get on the field."

Wilson wasn't expected back until the end of next week, at the earliest. Freddie Sanchez remains day to day with his achy, breaky shoulder.

On the rumor front:
Could Doumit's splashy start be greasing the skids for a Paulino deal? Boston and Cincy are said to be looking for backstop help now, and the Mets and Indians supposedly had interest in him during the offseason.

Our Indy catchers are pickups Michel Hernadez and Raul Chavez, both who looked OK in the spring, and Candy Maldonado. Hernadez and Maldonado are 29, both a bit longer in the tooth than Paulino, who turns 27 on 4/21; Chavez is 35.

Hernadez is the most likely call up if a deal is made. He has next to no MLB experience, and has been a .275-.285 AAA hitter. Prospect Miguel Perez, 24, is starting the year at AA Altoona, and it's too early to count on him for the big club.

Doumit is still very much a work in progress behind the dish (his nickname in the minors was "Ryan No-Mitt"), and he has a not so reassuring background of injuries.

Doumit's bat is earning him innings against righties and lefties. His catching? Well, it's getting better. The staff is calling more pitches, taking that load off of him. He really needs to frame pitches more often. But the Pirates may be ready to live with the learning curve if his bat and bod stay sound in the early going.

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