Tuesday, May 24, 2011
To hear Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland gush about the 22-24 Pirates over the weekend -- "They've got something special going here, they really do." -- you would think the team is loaded with All-Stars.
What a joke.
Or is it?
The Pirates will play the Atlanta Braves tonight at PNC Park. They have more All-Star candidates -- legitimate candidates -- than the Braves, if you can believe that. There are three -- starting pitcher Charlie Morton, closer Joel Hanrahan and second baseman Neil Walker -- and that doesn't include center fielder Andrew McCutchen of whom Leyland said, "I think he's going to be a superstar."
By Pirates standards, that's loaded with All-Stars. They haven't had three players make the All-Star Game since Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Neal Heaton did it in 1990. They've had two make it just four times since their record streak of losing seasons started 18 years ago.
Usually, the National League has a hard time picking a deserving Pirates representative. That's how bad they have been. Remember Carlos Garcia making the All-Star team in 1994? Tony Womack in '97? Ed Sprague in '99? Mike Williams in 2003? Williams might have been the worst; he went into the game with a 6.44 ERA and was traded soon after.
Even last season, Evan Meek represented the Pirates. No offense to Meek, he was a setup man. He did a fine job in his role, but he shouldn't have been on the All-Star team over McCutchen.
This season is different.
This season Morton, Hanrahan and Walker are legit.
It's early, of course. The All-Star Game isn't until July 12. Morton could start pitching the way he did last season. Hanrahan could blow a few saves. Walker could go into a long hitting slump.
But there is no indication any of that will happen.
Morton gets the start tonight against Jair Jurrjens in a matchup that, on paper, looks to be terrific. Jurrjens has been, arguably, the NL's best pitcher with a 5-1 record and 1.80 ERA and is the one Braves player who looks to be a lock for the All-Star Game, although Atlanta people could make a case for starter Tommy Hanson (5-3, 2.72). Morton has been among the best with a 5-1 record and 2.62 ERA, which ranked eighth among league starters going into games Monday night. What an amazing story it would be if he made the All-Star team. At the time of last year's game, he was at Class AAA Indianapolis, trying to fight his way back to the big leagues after his 1-9, 9.35 ERA start with the Pirates in 2010. Amazing wouldn't even begin to describe that story.
Hanrahan is 13 for 13 in save chances. Of the eight National League closers with double-digit saves going into Monday night, he, Florida's Leo Nunez (17 for 17) and Arizona's J.J. Putz (12 for 12) were the only ones without a blown save. His 1.66 ERA ranked second to the New York Mets' Francisco Rodriguez (0.76) among those eight pitchers. He's a big reason the Pirates are 20-0 in games when they led after eight innings.
Walker has been the best, most consistent hitter for the Pirates. He also just might be the NL's top second baseman, what with five-time All-Star Chase Utley playing for the Philadelphia Phillies for the first time Monday night after missing the first 46 games with right knee tendinitis. Sure, Cincinnati fans will argue for Brandon Phillips and Milwaukee fans for Rickie Weeks. But going into Monday, Walker led all major league second basemen with 30 RBIs and ranked first among NL second basemen in doubles and walks, second in runs, third in home runs and OPS, fourth in hits and sixth in average. He also has gone 20 consecutive games without an error.
If all of this keeps up ...
The Pirates will get multiple representatives in the All-Star Game.
And if they only get one ...
The National League will have a hard time making that selection for all the right reasons.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author
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