Senin, 08 Agustus 2011

Thanks for the memories

Monday, August 08, 2011

PITTSBURGH - AUGUST 05: Pedro Alvarez(notes) #24 of the Pittsburgh Pirates bare hands a ground ball against the San Diego Padres during the game on August 5, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Children ran the bases Sunday at PNC Park, as always, hordes of 'em rounding third, three and four abreast, or was that still the Padres?

There are plenty of statistical snapshots out there trying to illustrate the underside of a 10-game Pirates losing streak, but two stand out.

First, consider that Aug. 7, San Diego fielded a lineup that included no player with as many as seven homers, no player with as many as 30 RBIs, but against this Pirates pitching staff, still had scored a franchise-record 28 runs in the two previous games.

Second, the weekend series started with the Pirates slashing 15 hits Friday night and still losing by 10 runs.

"The results aren't what anybody wants, but I'm very confident this staff is growing up before our eyes," manager Clint Hurdle offered after the Pirates finally held 'em to a touchdown in the finale of a lost homestand. "It's all part of the experience. I still believe in our staff. It's through these kinds of challenges that it's gonna make them better, and better quicker."

Hurdle has done an admirable job of keeping his composure even as a staff most expected to fade in the second half instead just sailed off the edge of the earth. Hurdle has described his pitchers as a pitch-to-contact outfit, but no one has pitched to contact like this since the kamikaze pilots.

National media darlings for about 48 hours there at one point, the Pirates now take it back to the road tonight in San Francisco, with an appointment schedule that includes nothing but world champions, Brewers, Cardinals and Reds between now and Aug. 29. Those teams probably will notice the new improved slogan: Your 2011 Pirates, same awful hitting, now with terrible pitching.

Wasn't it just July 28 when actor Michael Keaton was gushing all over the section front in USA Today about how revved up he and Pirates fans coast-to-coast were about this team?

"It doesn't get better than this," said Keaton, a Coraopolis native.

Keaton is now 2 for 2 on conspicuous Pirates observations. He said famously after throwing out an opening day first pitch once that at some point, "somebody's gotta write a check," and now, having identified the season's high point, he's right again. The club is 1-11 since he made that statement.

It was only a week ago this team returned from Philadelphia after a predictably damaging road trip that started in Atlanta, but it took a weeklong nosedive against dysfunctional National League teams Chicago and San Diego to end this season fairly definitively.

"I never thought we'd throw up a donut at home," Hurdle said.

I like the verb choice.

But candidly, now that it's over, I would like to thank the Pirates for a refreshingly interesting summer. Thanks to Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington for taking a shot at the trade deadline by adding major league bats without yanking the rug from the project as a whole. Thanks to Hurdle and his coaching staff, particularly Ray Searage, for keeping a demonstrably dreadful pitching staff competitive for almost two-thirds of a season.

Even with a 10-game losing streak that's more likely to elongate than snap, the Pirates are 54-59. At this point a year ago, they were 39-74.

And obviously, thanks to the players for approaching every game as though they intended to win it despite massive empirical evidence that they likely wouldn't. It was they who made possible the near-unimaginable experience of watching a ballgame on the North Side of Pittsburgh determine who was in first place in late July and having it turn out to be the home team.

That actually happened. We weren't all on acid.

My own exceedingly marginal contribution was in urging the recall of Pedro Alvarez from Indianapolis July 25, and ever since, he has been the worst player on the field, if not the worst in the big leagues.

No need to thank me.

Through Sunday, he had 62 strikeouts and 37 hits and was hitting .206. The three double-plays he hit into Friday night were the main component in the answer to the question "How do you get 15 hits and lose by 10 runs?"

At the same time, a lot of Pirates actually have hit too well and pitched too well to be associated with this 10-game framework in which they have been outscored, 82-37.

"Nobody feels sorry for professional athletes when they deal with adversity; I don't," Hurdle said pointedly Sunday before the game. "You can feel embarrassed, you can feel humiliated, you can feel a lot of things. We are afforded an opportunity to have a lifestyle that's pretty comfortable. To have to deal with on-field adversity, like [playing] 20 games in a row, I got no time for that. I don't.

"Drive around the neighborhood around here Sunday morning, six o'clock, 12 o'clock at night. You want to talk about a game bein' hard vs. life bein' hard? That's the mental toughness part of it that everybody can improve upon as they get older."

Mental toughness is still on the to-do list for this recovering franchise. So is finding better players. But for 95 games, much deeper in the season than anyone could have dreamed, this team had a place among the better teams in baseball.

For people who remember that as the norm, it was darn near wonderful.

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