On the Pirates: Reeling rotation defined first half

But stubborn offense, led by McLouth, kept things interesting

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From hanging on for dear life on opening night in Atlanta to the dozen losses to franchises based in Chicago to the 19th comeback victory with the walkoff blast late last night, the 122nd edition of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club today turns the page from first half to second half with a highly uncertain course ahead.

Will they ever hit .500?

Will key pieces get traded before they have a chance?

A look back at the extremes ...

Best victory: There were more dramatic, more satisfying outcomes than the 12-5 trouncing of the New York Yankees Tuesday, but none came on a more scintillating stage.

Worst loss: What could be worse than blowing a big lead against half of Washington's regular lineup? How about Paul Maholm giving up three home runs in one inning or Matt Capps blowing his first save in that excruciating, 7-6 defeat June 10?

Top position player: Nate McLouth. If not for Texas' superhuman Josh Hamilton, he would be the most productive center fielder in Major League Baseball.

Bottom position player: Although Adam LaRoche and Freddy Sanchez have disappointed immensely, no one fell as far as Ronny Paulino, now an afterthought in Indianapolis after a .218 showing and continued questions about his commitment.

Top pitcher: Capps. Despite a couple hiccups, no one else on the Pirates' staff performs at a consistently elite level.

Bottom pitcher: The Pirates still await firm, tangible signs that Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell will turn it around. Those remain scant on each count, thus a tie here.

Best personnel move: Neal Huntington received credit throughout the industry for acquiring Tyler Yates for a fringe prospect, as well as building a solid bench from scrap. But his most important move came in the winter, when he correctly identified McLouth and Ryan Doumit as impact players. No decision was more important in creating what, stunningly, became the No. 5 offense in the majors.

Worst personnel move: The wasting of $300,000 on a lifeless Byung-Hyun Kim in spring training stands out, but nothing looked worse than recalling Bryan Bullington for two weeks without having him pitch. It was a public display of a lack of confidence that benefited neither the team nor the athlete.

Best front-office move: Frank Coonelly's oft-stated commitment to drafting the best player resulted in actually drafting the best player, Pedro Alvarez, as well as several other high-end, above-usual-cost picks. Many, including Alvarez, still must be signed, though, for this to matter.

Worst front-office move: Agreeing with the Yankees to let Billy Crystal face Paul Maholm in a spring exhibition. No possible outcome could have benefited the Pirates or Maholm, as it cast them and their pitcher in the role of Washington Generals for a day.

Best managerial move: Even as John Russell has provided a steadying presence for a resilient team, he also has shown an eye to the future in challenging his starters to go deeper in games, even when game circumstances might dictate otherwise. That is not an easy balance.

Worst managerial move: It might have been ordering the batting champion Sanchez to bunt as a pinch-hitter last Sunday, then watching Sanchez foul out to end a run of five consecutive singles for the team. It hardly cost the Pirates the game, but it did underscore Russell's tendency to give away outs too freely.

Unsung hero: Hitting coach Don Long has taken essentially the same everyday eight and turned the Pirates into a patient, productive group that ranks fifth in the majors in runs, eighth in home runs. Is there a Hitting Coach of the Year award?

Unsung goat: A multiple-way tie between everyone, in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, who was summoned to pitch middle relief. Is the occasional strike too much to ask?

Best quote: "We let 'em know we weren't going to be pushed around in our own house. Especially by Randy Johnson." That was Doumit on June 9, right after that argument between the Big Unit and Doug Mientkiewicz emptied the benches and bullpens. The Pirates beat Arizona, 5-3, and appeared to enjoy it thoroughly.

Worst quote: "I thought I pitched OK." That could be attributed to any number of starters over the course of a season in which they mostly have not pitched OK.

Best score: Zach Duke 1, Roy Halladay 0.

Worst score: White Sox 1,072, Pirates 8. Or whatever those scores were.

Best play: Damaso Marte's upside-down, underhanded flip to first base May 17 at Wrigley Field was spectacular enough to top many outfield gems by McLouth and Nady. No coincidence, it also was part of the Pirates' only victory in the Friendly Confines.

Worst play: Atlanta's Matt Diaz slid high into Jack Wilson on April 3 and injured his calf, thus subjecting the team's followers to two months of miserable play at shortstop. Never did Wilson look more valuable.

Most jarring sight: Raul Chavez picking a runner off third base Sunday. Are catchers allowed to do that? Who was the last to do so in a Pirates uniform, Tony Pena?

Most predictable sight: LaRoche striking out 31 times with runners in scoring position, most in the majors. Despite a total overhaul of his offseason and spring regimen, he still underwent his annual April-May root canal.

Best comeback: Bay. All he needed, it seems, was functioning knees.

Worst comeback: Sanchez from his shoulder surgery, which was supposed to have such a minor impact but lingers to this day.

Underappreciated statistic: Nady, in addition to all those RBIs, leads all outfielders in the majors with nine assists.

Overblown statistic: The numbers will show, officially, that the Pirates' rotation delivered 30 quality starts. That many were quality?

Most encouraging scene: Doug Mientkiewicz placing his hand on a young player's shoulder.

Most discouraging scene: Franquelis Osoria through the gate.

Reason to believe the Pirates can achieve 82 wins: Because they apparently could not care less if they achieve that modest goal and, thus, will feel little pressure to do so.

Reason to believe they will not: Starting pitching.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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