Monday, April 6, 2009

Opening Day: That's Why Thay Play Nine Innings

Hey, for the third opener in a row, the Pirates staged a dramatic late-inning rally to take an unlikely win. It was an exhibition of all we've come to expect from Pittsburgh - the good, the bad, and a full nine-inning grind.

Paul Maholm was his usual dependable self. He went 6-2/3 innings, giving up two runs - one unearned, thank you, Andy LaRoche - while surrendering seven hits. He had one K, one intentional walk to Sir Albert, and beaned a batter, throwing virtually all of his 89 pitches to contact.

The Bucs banged out eleven hits to go with six walks, but stranded ten runners. Hitting heroes were camp no-show Nyjer Morgan, who had three singles, including a big two-out, two run shot, and a stolen base, along with Adam LaRoche and Freddy Sanchez, who each had a pair of hits.

But the biggest knock of the day was drilled by the longest-tenured Bucco, Jack Splat. He was wearing an 0-for-4 collar with 2 Ks when he stepped up in the ninth with the bases juiced, two outs, and the Pirates down a run.

He was facing Card closer Jason Motte of the high-ninties heater, who blew two pitches past him. On the 0-2 delivery, Wilson picked a rising 96 MPH off of his letters and sent it to the base of the wall in left center, scoring Adam LaRoche, Eric Hinske, and Brandon Moss to give the Pirates a 6-4 lead. Matt Capps would make it hold up.

Capps, who had an iffy spring, looked good, mixing off speed stuff with a 93 MPH fastball and keeping the ball down. He faced the heart of the St. Louis order, striking out Ryan Ludwick to end the game after yielding a ground ball single to Albert Pujols earlier in the inning.

A thing of beauty it wasn't. The Bucs made three errors, two by young LaRoche (one scoring) and another when John Grabow, who had a runner picked off first, zipped the ball into right field. Tyler Yates faced four batters, getting out of an inherited two-out jam in the seventh only to give up a homer, walk, and two runs in the eighth.

The Cards scored what is usually the clinching insurance run in the eighth thanks to the walk, Grabow's wayward toss, and a sac fly to right that went all of 150' but plated the run when Moss three-hopped a weak throw home.

And, of course, there were those ten stranded runners.

But today, the good outshined the bad. Maholm and Capps were money, the Pirates scored all six runs and banged nine of their 11 hits with two outs, and they played all nine innings, something they couldn't be accused of in the dog days of 2008. The revamped bench came up with a couple of hits from Ramon Vazquez and Eric Hinske.

Don Long should be proud of his charges. Yesterday afternoon, they were patient and disciplined at the plate. Adam Wainwright was over the ninety-pitch mark in the sixth inning, and the Pirate batters made the Cards throw a strike before they offered.

Even John Russell's decisions to leave hitters in place instead of dipping into his bench paid dividends. He let Maholm bat in the sixth, and he walked, eventually leading to Morgan driving in a pair.

And allowing Wilson to hit in the ninth with red-hot Craig Monroe on the bench and the game on the line may have been questionable, but the results certainly weren't.

It's also a plus when the Card bullpen lets a game get away. They did it a NL-leading 31 times in 2008, and planting that seed of doubt can't hurt against a division rival.

But hey, the Bucs won their openers the two season before this, too, and finished the years with 68 and 67 victories. Let's hope this is an omen that they can play the next 161 games with better results.

They'll take the field again tomorrow night, with Ian Snell matching up with Kyle Lohse. One game at a time...

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