Making a lasting impression, for now

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There's no second chance to make a first impression, as the clever folk like to say, but there were at least two ways for the Pirates to make a last impression on the final weekend before the All-Star break.

They could pound out their seventh series sweep of the season at the invitation of the New York Mess, who Saturday night featured a starting pitcher (Carlos Torres) who hadn't actually, well, started a major league game in nearly three years, along with a clean-up hitter who came into the game hitting .169 (Ike Davis). A makeable sweep this weekend would have sent the 2013 Pirates to the break with 57 wins, the only Pirates team other than the 1971 World Series Champions to do so.

Or ...

The Pirates could spend their weekend doing more of what they've been doing for most of the past week, specifically (and methodically) boring big crowds with their remarkably tedious disappearing bats act.

For most of Saturday night, the Pirates appeared partial to Option B, meaning they were content to let Jordy Mercer's little RBI bleeder through the infield in the 11th inning Friday night stand as the highlight of the series, and sentence A.J. Burnett to another episode of blatant non-support on the occasion of his first PNC Park start in 61/2 weeks.

In Burnett's previous 15 starts, the Pirates scored three runs or fewer 10 times, two runs or fewer eight times. When he left after 52/3 of this one, the offense measured all of one run, five hits, one of those by Burnett on a second-inning slug bunt that briefly aroused another sellout from a torpor to which it quickly returned.

You know you've lost the crowd when part of it starts singing along to a guy doing a cappella karaoke in the upper deck.

But then, after Nolan Ryan left -- I mean Torres (Mets manager Terry Collins pinch-hit for him in the sixth) -- Andrew McCutchen greeted New York reliever David Aardsma with a rocket into the seats above the Heinz Ketchup bottle in farthest right-center field, sparking a fireworks appetizer in advance of the formal postgame pyrotechnics, tying the score at 2-2, and stifling the karaoke, always a noble gesture.

An hour later, the All-Star center fielder was reflecting on a 4-2 Pirates victory and the significance of potentially getting that 57th today, a 57th win prior to the break in a clubhouse where 57 wins represent the totality of 2010.

"It's good, but we still have a full season to play," McCutchen said, "It's good that we're doin' but we've gotta be ready for the next half. We're not focused on that now we're just focused on tomorrow. Win tomorrow and get ready for Cincinnati [on the other side of the break]."

Not even Cutch's 10th homer looked as if it would keep the Pirates from settling in for what appeared to be another long, virtually offense-free night, from setting up for another failure to score as many as four times. It would have been the sixth time in the past seven games.

Which is no small consideration.

When the Pirates score four times, they are 40-8; when they don't, they're 16-28.

Offensive opportunities still come with varying frequencies but get pretty thoroughly ignored by this team. One came in the second inning after the aforementioned slug bunt put two runners on with only one out, but Starling Marte defused that situation with his 87th strikeout of the season (only Pedro Alvarez has more), and Jose Tabata grounded out to end the inning.

Tabata's game got worse though. After Mercer's single chased Garrett Jones home two pitches after Jones' leadoff double in the fifth, Tabata came up with the bases full and one out and promptly bounced Ryan's, sorry, Torres' 1-2 pitch into an inning-slaying double play.

And yet Tabata would find a slice of redemption in the "explosive" seventh (two runs!), when he slapped a two-out single to right to put runners on the corners against Greg Burke, after which McCutchen singled off David Wright's glove at third for a 3-2 lead.

New York called on left-hander Josh Edgin to pitch to Alvarez, whose worst nightmare is that he shows up for the Home Run Derby Monday night and he's facing a left-handed pitcher. But Edgin walked Pedro and followed that with an exceedingly rare baseball gambit: the bases-loaded, four-pitch walk to a guy batting .194 with runners in scoring position.

Russell Martin gladly accepted, and the 39,173 on hand quickly got comfortable with the reality that the game would be turned over to the bullpen alchemy of Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli.

Everyone knows what that has come to mean, and thus the uneventful little 4-2 victory Saturday night put the Pirates into sweep position and a shot at 57 pre-break wins.

"Again, we're focused, I believe, on the right things," said Clint Hurdle, who wasn't around for that 57-win season.

"Obviously, it's improvement; I am very pleased, but nobody out there is satisfied. I'm not satisfied. Nobody's satisfied."

Maybe these Pirates aren't so menacing as Stargell-Stennett-Hebner-Oliver-Robertson-Sanguillen-Blass et al., but it's probably past time to know this: They're awfully good.

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Gene Collier:


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