Only the Pirates ...
Which other franchise could take this setting, such a bright spot in the home finale of a season with so much misery, and turn it into a chance for the crowd to boo out its lungs?
Andy LaRoche homered twice, went 5 for 5 and had six RBIs in the Pirates' 11-1 rout of Los Angeles this afternoon at PNC Park, taking three of four from the powerful Dodgers and again preventing them from clinching the National League's West Division title.
Zach Duke was no less impressive, pitching 8 2/3 exceptional innings of one run, four hits and a walk. He carried a shutout into the ninth, struck out five and, maybe most impressive, needed only 103 pitches -- 74 strikes -- to get that far.
All told, it matched the most lopsided victory of the year.
• Game: Pirates vs. Chicago Cubs, 8:05 p.m., Wrigley Field.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: RHP Kevin Hart (4-8, 5.38) vs. RHP Ryan Dempster (10-8, 3.68).
• Key matchup: Hart will want to save face upon facing his former team, now 1-7 with a 6.93 ERA since Chicago traded him.
• Of note: The Pirates have 56 pinch-hits, third-most in the National League.
So, what could possibly ruin this?
With Duke one out away from his fourth complete game, manager John Russell emerged from the Pirates' dugout, prompting booing from some in the crowd of 16,696, though most stayed silent, presumably waiting to see if he would actually take the ball.
After a few seconds, he did.
The crowd booed as loudly as it had all year -- no small achievement -- but quickly changed to an equally loud standing ovation for Duke by the time the pitcher reached the foul line. Near the dugout, Duke tipped his cap.
The crowd then turned up the volume in its booing of Russell, as loud as any manager has heard it in these parts since the waning days of Jim Tracy.
Why take out Duke?
He was not on a pitch count, Russell said, but the manager offered two explanations:
1. He wanted Duke to get an ovation.
2. He wanted to get reliever Donnie Veal some work.
"I wanted Zach to have a nice ovation," Russell said. "He did a heck of a job, pitched a great game. We were trying to get him a shutout and, unfortunately, they scored the run. We just wanted to give the fans an opportunity to appreciate what he did rather than the game just being over. ... And it was good that we got Donnie in the game. That'll make him a little more prepared."
Did Russell weigh the reward Duke might take from a complete game vs. the ovation?
"He did his job. Complete games are nice for a pitcher. But, to come off the mound and have the crowd give you an ovation, that was Zach's moment, in my opinion. I'm not going to take anything away from Zach. I guess that's the story, that I took him out, but he deserved the ovation."
Duke, who appeared to be biting his tongue in answering reporters' questions on the topic, was asked if he preferred the complete game to the solo ovation.
"At that point in the game, I think I might have gotten an ovation either way," he replied. "I was one out away. But I understand his thinking, and I appreciate it."
Did Duke want the complete game?
"I wanted it pretty bad. I'm not going to lie. It would have been my fourth, and it's something I can hang my hat on, for sure. He said he wanted to have the crowd give me an ovation.. That's fine."
Did he make a plea with Russell?
"It wasn't really open for discussion."
If Russell's primary intent was to get the ovation, Duke already got one of those when batting in the seventh, and he heard plenty of support while pitching the later innings. Besides, as several players pointed out, the fans will cheer for a complete game, too.
If Russell's primary intent was to keep Veal's arm fresh ... well, even Veal wanted no part of that.
"It's always nice to get some work in," Veal said. "But no one wants to come in after that."
Veal retired his lone batter on three pitches.
Duke is second-time eligible for salary arbitration in the coming offseason, and a fourth complete game would have bolstered his bargaining position, tying him for the league lead with San Francisco's twin aces, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.
But team president Frank Coonelly strongly rejected any link.
"It was JR's decision, and the last thing he or anyone else was thinking about at a moment like that is a possible arbitration case in the future," Coonelly said.
All this somehow overshadowed LaRoche putting up career highs in hits, home runs and RBIs and very nearly hit for the cycle.
His day, in order: He singled to right, lined a two-run double to the track in center, hit a solo home run to straightaway center, lined another RBI double to center and, in his last at-bat, homered again, high off the left foul pole, and gave a curtain call to the crowd.
Not bad, but why not try for the cycle with that second double?
"I thought about it," LaRoche said. "Never would have made it."
The home runs gave LaRoche 12 for the season, two for the series. Overall, he is on a .368 tear in his past 14 starts..
"I've been feeling pretty good at the plate, and I'm starting to show some signs of power," he said.
Other offensive highlights: LaRoche's first home run in the fourth inning was followed by Garrett Jones' 21st, Andrew McCutchen had three hits, and Delwyn Young got his first RBI since Aug. 29.
The final attendance was 1,577,853, and the average was 19,480. Each figure was the smallest in PNC Park's history, just below the 1,583,031 and 19,788 of 2004. The current average is the third-lowest in Major League Baseball.
The Pirates, now 59-96, must go 4-3 on this season-ending road trip to avoid 100 losses.