Wilson relishes 'best moment of my career'

Pirates' shortstop gets ovation, pinch-hit in possible farewell


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Whichever route the Pirates intend to take with Jack Wilson this offseason, trading him or keeping him, it was clear on this golden final afternoon of baseball how the fans of Pittsburgh felt.

Loud and clear.

As Wilson strode to the batter's box to pinch-hit in the fifth inning of an otherwise nondescript 6-2 loss to the Houston Astros, the 20,311 at PNC Park -- a group always thick with season-ticket holders for the last home game -- rose in unison and roared in recognition of what might be his final at-bat in Pittsburgh.

Houston's veteran catcher, Brad Ausmus, moved by the moment, motioned with his left hand for Wilson to step out of the box.

So, he did.

But not for long.


Tomorrow
  • Game: Pirates vs. Milwaukee Brewers, 8:05 p.m., Miller Park.
  • TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
  • Pitching: RHP Jeff Karstens (2-6, 4.37) vs. RHP Dave Bush (9-10, 4.22).

"I looked back at Brad and just said, 'No, we've got to play,' " Wilson recalled. "You go up there trying to concentrate, but you're so caught up in the moment and feelings and emotions. But it's a 4-1 game in the fifth, man on second."

So, Wilson stepped back in and, with the crowd still on its feet and growing louder, lashed a Roy Oswalt's rising heater into left field. It was too hard, actually, to score Luis Cruz from second and cut Houston's lead from 4-1, but it did turn the volume up another notch.

Same with Wilson's sentiment, apparently, especially when he looked over at his wife, Julie, and children in the seats.

"It's definitely the best moment of my career. By far."

Before the hit or after?

"I think just the whole thing. Just trying to enjoy it as much as I could in that moment. You want to look around. You want to see what's going on, but you can't. You have something to do. ... Then, afterward, it sinks in. You did your job, and all that happens ... it's a pretty incredible feeling."

It was Wilson's second at-bat since his right index finger was fractured Aug. 31, relegating him to pinch-hitting the rest of the way.

As for next year ...

Wilson, 30, is guaranteed a salary of $7.25 million, with the Pirates holding a club option worth $8.4 million for 2010 or a $500,000 buyout. In all likelihood, he again would be the team's highest-paid player next season if he stays.

Indications have been strong from the front office that, although the roster will not go entirely young, it will go mostly that way as soon as this offseason. That makes players such as Wilson, who missed nearly half the season to injuries, and second baseman Freddy Sanchez, who will make $6.1 million, highly likely trade targets. The team's only other high-paid player, first baseman Adam LaRoche, who will get a raise on his current $5 million salary through arbitration, seems a good bet to stay.

Still, general manager Neal Huntington, the man who would make the Wilson trade or any other, was adamant yesterday that no such decision has been made.

"There's been an awful lot made of Jack getting an at-bat in this game and how quickly he's going to get run out of town by the new regime," Huntington said yesterday morning. "I'm not sitting here right now thinking this is his last home game. He's an outstanding defensive player, and he has value. When he plays, you see the impact he has on our team."

Huntington acknowledged that "there are a lot of teams that need shortstops," but he added that such a market could raise the going rate at the position and, hence, make Wilson look even more valuable to the Pirates.

"If someone comes in with a great baseball trade, then he's not any different than anyone else on our roster," Huntington said. "But we're not going out this offseason trying to trade Jack. If he's our shortstop the next two years, that's a good thing."

Ross Ohlendorf showed better stuff -- a fastball regularly at 93 mph and an effective curve -- but remained erratic in allowing four runs and 10 hits over five innings. He walked only two but fell behind 12 of his 27 batters, ran up a pitch count of 100 and exited with a 4-0 deficit.

"I saw some things he can build off," manager John Russell said.

"I feel like I made a lot of progress from the last two outings to this one," Ohlendorf said.

He certainly was no match for Oswalt, who, two weeks removed from facing the minimum 27 batters in blanking the Pirates in Houston, allowed one run in six innings.

The lone offensive highlights: Ryan Doumit had three hits a second consecutive game, despite making a rare afternoon start because Russell wanted his best lineup on the field for the home finale.

"That showed me something," Russell said. "I'm proud of Ryan in a lot of ways."

After the game, unlike the home finale last season, there was full participation from the players in the traditional show of appreciation. First, there was an organized jerseys-off-their-backs ceremony involving all players and fans identified as winners during the game. Next, several players and Russell took extra time to toss out gifts, sign autographs and shake hands.

In Wilson's case, there were a few hugs for team and stadium personnel, too, as well as a bonus sprint down the right-field line to make sure more fans were being reached.

Does he feel this was it?

"I can't say," Wilson said. "That's not up to me."

Perhaps the most intriguing reaction to the scene came from center fielder Nate McLouth.

"That was great, what everyone did for Jack, but what was it for?" he asked a reporter.

Told of the trade speculation, McLouth continued, "Well, if that's the case, it was a great show of appreciation for a player who's done a lot for Pittsburgh, on and off the field."

That was the end of the interview, or so it seemed.

McLouth came back for more.

"This tells you something," he continued. "Pittsburgh isn't some town that's new to baseball. They know what they're watching, what's going on. And you know what that makes me think about? Can you imagine how this place is going to get behind us when we give them something to actually get behind?"

He cited his many visits last winter to Mellon Arena.

"There's nothing I want more than what the Penguins have, to have those people on our side, to have other teams fear coming here. And that might look impossible now, but there was a time not that long ago when you could walk up and get a center-ice seat. Look at it now. ... That's what I want here, in our place. But that's up to us."


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


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