Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Bucs Batter Birds

The Bucs banged out 17 hits and played from ahead tonight to outlast the Cardinals 7-4.

Zach Duke looked sharp, with a fastball clocked at 93 at times, until hitting the wall in the seventh. He gave up three runs, one earned (Ryan Doumit had a bad day at the office. A passed ball on a called third strike and a catcher's interference call led to a pair of runs) in 6-1/3 innings on five hits, with two walks and four K's, even catching Albert Pujols looking on an inside heater. It may have been the first pitch any Pirate hurler has sneaked past Pujols so far this series.

The top of the Pirate order continued to sizzle. Nyjer Morgan had two more hits and Freddy Sanchez drove, dribbled, and dinked four hits in five at-bats. The bottom of the order was just as productive, with Brandon Moss adding three hits, Jack Wilson four, and even Duke contributed a double and two sac bunts.

The key blow was Nate McLouth's first hit of the season, a homer to right in the sixth frame that grew the Pirate lead to 7-2 and gave the Buccos all the cushion they'd need.

The bullpen needed the help. John Grabow struggled with his command through 1-2/3 innings, issuing a pair of walks, but not allowing a run. Tyler Yates came on in the ninth, and got one out while giving up a homer, double, and walk. His heat hit 95, but Yates needs to show a second pitch that he can get over the plate or the league is just going to sit on his fastball, as they did tonight.

In fact, the biggest play of the inning was a Bucco blunder turned into an even bigger Card miscue. Joe Thurston doubled into left, and Morgan came up throwing, but to second base, not third. The base was uncovered, and as the ball came in, Thurston sprinted to the hot corner. But Adam LaRoche was backing the play, caught Morgan's throw on a hop, and gunned out Thurston. It was a huge out.

Matt Capps came in to get his second save, and it wasn't a work or art. He was right down Broadway with his pitches, but Nate McLouth ran down a shot to the fence and Ramon Vazquez ended the game by catching a bullet lined to third. But hey, all's well that ends well.

It's only three games into the season, but a couple of red flags are blowin' in the breeze. One is the shaky bullpen; it hasn't given up many runs, but sooner or later all those runners and ropes are going to haunt the staff, especially if called on early in the game.

And the Pirates stranded 12 runners tonight, after leaving ten on base the first game. A lack of power and station-to-station base running is putting a big crimp in the Pirates' potential run production.

Five errors in three games isn't a good sign, either, especially with the Pirates' pitch to contact rotation.

But the glass is at least half-full. The Bucs have scored 16 runs in three games with little contribution from the middle of the order.

The Pirate batters have been disciplined at the dish this year, and the pitch recognition is much improved. Maybe it's because they're buying into Donnie Long's coaching, or maybe it's because Jay Bay and Xavier Nady aren't around swinging from the heels any longer. Either way, they're taking professional at-bats most of the time.

Jack Splat and Freddy Sanchez look rejuvenated. Wilson has dropped his hands a bit at Long's urging, and Sanchez is playing healthy and throwing sidearm to keep the pressure off of his shoulder, thanks to the work of Perry Hill.

Nyjer Morgan has made strides, too, proving once again that spring training results have no bearing on reality. His OF work is improved - he made a nice running grab tonight, and made it look easy because of his route - though his wayward throw shows he's still a work in progress. But he is progressing.

And while he's not dropping any bunts, he's hitting more balls up the middle instead of pulling everything. As long as Morgan is making solid contact, the Pittsburgh lineup is much more in balance with him at the leadoff spot and McLouth third.

We also like John Russell's use of the bench. Eric Hinske got a start, as did Vasquez, and he got Craig Monroe into the field tonight. He's keeping the whole team involved.

Hey, so far, so good. Tomorrow's get-away game will feature Ross Ohlendorf against Chris Carpenter, then off to Cincy. It'd be a nice start to come home with a winning record.

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