Before offering a fond farewell to the Pacific Northwest, congratulations to a little place called Caffe Latte on Stewart Street for being the only coffeehouse inventive enough to use something other than the most generic of brand-name chocolates with their iced mochas. For all that went so well here, the one disappointment was, of all things, the coffee, as compared to the original material that can be had back home.
Anyway, it is off to the land of the Stanley Cup champions this morning, and here is a related note for the puckheads among you: Let the Mighty Mallards serve as a testament that, no matter how much the NHL opens its ice for skilled forwards, the best teams still get built from the blue line out. When the Penguins get themselves a 27-year-old Rob Blake to pair with Ryan Whitney, that is when they will go from being supremely entertaining to a legitimate Cup contender.
To the Qs ...
Q: Dejan, don't you think you were a little hard on the Buccos yesterday? I mean, yeah, losing by 7-0 to a pitcher with a 10-plus ERA is bad, but it's not like Jeff Weaver is the worst pitcher in baseball. He did win 37 games for the Dodgers over two seasons just a few years ago. He did pitch well for St. Louis in the World Series last year.
I think what has me upset is that it seems, as soon as the Pirates win a good game, they go out the next night and get blanked.
Larry Zalewski of Mt. Lebanon
KOVACEVIC: A couple points in response, Larry ...
1. Hard on the Pirates? If it were the first time something like that had happened, sure. Baseball is full of isolated incidents. But look at that list of pitchers in that story one more time. It is becoming astounding, the way the Pirates lose to pitchers who have achieved next to nothing until facing them. That is not being hard. That is fact.
2. I did note, extensively, that Weaver pitched well.
3. You are quite correct about that latter trend you note. Seems like every time the Pirates have had one of those boy-this-would-be-a-good-win kind of games, they fire another blank.
Q: Kip Wells entered his meeting with the Pirates on May 23 with a 6.75 ERA and a 1-8 record. He allowed one run on five hits and a walk in seven innings against the Bucs.
On May 28, Kyle Lohse sported a 1-6 record with a 5.31 ERA. He threw a three-hit, complete-game shutout.
Kameron Loe was 1-6 with a 7.40 ERA before he threw eight shutout innings against the Pirates on June 14, scattering five hits.
Why does this team struggle so much against pitchers with poor past performances? Are they overly confident entering the game? Do they see the ERA and just assume the hits will naturally come?
Brian Leary of Clarion
KOVACEVIC: Quite simply, Brian, they are not a disciplined hitting team. As a result, crazy as it sounds, they might actually be at a disadvantage when facing an unsteady pitcher.
Think about it: If they are facing a pitcher with great command, they have a pretty good idea where the ball is going to go. The strike zone is shrunk for them. (This is a generality, I know, but stay with me.) When they face Kip Wells, and not even he knows where the ball is going, that makes the strike zone for an undisciplined team about 3 feet wide. And that team has no chance.
Even Wells commented on the Pirates' willingness to swing at everything that night after the game. And this without being asked.
Q: You recently lamented about the Pirates' batters and their lack of strike-zone command. Their next-to-last team rankings in on-base percentage and walks bears this out. Jim Tracy frequently mentions the need for more "disciplined" at-bats. Tracy is stating the obvious.
So what, if anything, is the PBC doing to address this shortcoming? The Buc stops ... where?
John Kutsor of Madison, Ala.
KOVACEVIC: The Pirates, you might recall, made a big deal about walks roughly a month ago, when they were just completely falling apart at the plate. And, probably no coincidence, their best spurt of offense all year followed.
But their approach to walks and patience, as it was explained to me, is that it varies from pitcher to pitcher. If that pitcher has a history of pounding the strike zone, they are instructed to be aggressive. If he is erratic, they lay off.
If that sounds unduly confusing, that might explain some of what you saw against Weaver. There were times they hacked at the first pitch, other times they let perfectly good ones go by. It might have been their most uneven performance at the plate all year, in that regard.
The most successful offensive teams, of course, are the ones who are so poised and disciplined at the plate that, with very few exceptions, it is they -- and not the pitcher -- who dictate the approach.
Q: Welcome to the great Northwest!
Each major sports market seems to have its favorite team, such as the Steelers, St Louis Cardinals and Detroit Red Wings. It is my opinion that Seattle fans are loyal but not beyond the point of being too polite (unless you sign with the Rangers for $252 million). In the nine years I have been out here, I have witnessed the public's favorite pro team here go from the Sonics to the Mariners and now the Seahawks.
As Seattle is a new market for you to visit, I am curious to know, in your opinion, who are the most loyal and least knowledgable fans in your travels?
Gregory Charlebois of Shoreline, Wash.
KOVACEVIC: The most knowledgeable I have seen are those in St. Louis, which should come as little surprise to most. I judge this by little things like whether or not a crowd inexplicably cheers when a runner tags from second to go to third on the second out of an inning. Those who follow the Cardinals understand and appreciate the game as well as anyone, and that includes cheering for great efforts by the opposition. (Ask Chris Duffy about the warm ovation for his remarkable catch at Busch last month.)
The least knowledgeable seem to be in Phoenix, but that was my impression when covering hockey there, too. Probably just the nature of an extremely transient city where everybody is from somewhere else.
The most loyal are the 2,000 or so diehards who sit in the upper tier of PNC Park, directly behind home plate. Longtime fans know that those were the people who used to be in the boxes right behind home plate at Three Rivers Stadium but were bumped to a higher level as the prices soared. So many of the faces are so familiar every night, and they come out rain or shine, win or lose.
Given the Pirates' performance over the past decade and a half, and how that compares to the rest of professional sports, there cannot possibly be a match for that degree of loyalty.
The least loyal? Well ... you asked, and I will give an honest answer. No letters bug me more than those who come from people who used to live in Pittsburgh and ask me whether or not they should become fans of the city where they moved to, based on the relative performances of the two teams.
If you are asking that question, you already have your answer.
Thing No. 40 that makes Pittsburgh great: Lunch in the bedroom of a brothel?
The best thing about eating at Papa J's on Boulevard of the Allies, Downtown, is the food. They do Italian as well as anyone in the Triangle, and they do it without inspiring you to think about a second mortgage.
But right after that comes the bizarre setting for the place, an old house that is nearly a century and a half old and once provided services far beyond food to its customers. There is dining - and a bar - on the ground floor, with all the original ornamentation and fireplaces still there, but go upstairs on the creaky steps and you can choose one of two bedrooms up there for additional seating. Again, all original.
In the summer, for those already familiar with the insides, there is the best outdoor seating deck of any place in the whole of Pittsburgh, with an ivy-layered rooftop that looks over our historic First Side district.
It always is amazing to me how few people know about this place ...
Until next week ... remember there is a chat Monday, and a Q&A Tuesday when the traveling party reaches the Very Bad Place ...