LaRoche, Pearce blast Pirates to finale win

Back-to-back home runs sink Padres, 6-1, close year at 67-95

SAN DIEGO -- The 2008 season most assuredly did not end yesterday for the Pirates when back-to-back blasts by Adam LaRoche and Steve Pearce bested the San Diego Padres, 6-1, at Petco Park, even if the schedule suggests as much.

It actually ended, in so many ways, on that fateful July 31 when general manager Neal Huntington hastily summoned the players at PNC Park for a meeting to inform them that Jason Bay was traded just before Major League Baseball's deadline. One minute, Bay was packing his bag to join teammates on the bus and, the next, he was gone.

So was the season.

Next year
  • Game: Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 4:05 p.m., April 6, 2009, Busch Stadium.
  • TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7)
  • Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm vs. RHP Kyle Lohse.

Maybe next season, too.

The team was 50-58 at the break and went 17-37 the rest of the way, a .315 winning percentage that had the feel of an ominous portend for 2009.

"We took a step back. A few steps back," the always candid LaRoche said after his 25th home run, a prodigious stroke that was the fourth-longest in Petco history. "But, hopefully, we did it with the idea of stepping forward."

Those steps back, he clarified, reflected not only the loss of Bay and Xavier Nady from what had been a richly competitive lineup, but also intangibles.

"There's no question the confidence of the team went down. Everybody knows that. Neal knows that. That's how it is when you lose a couple guys you're used to leaning on. It takes a while to get that back. The important part is that guys in here believe in what Neal's doing, what the guy's about. We've bought in. We trust him to give us the team we need."

LaRoche cited the seemingly cyclical string of awful pitching promoted from Class AAA Indianapolis and even Class AA Altoona.

"Whether it was going to be this way or spending a lot of money, it needed to happen. We were looking to the minors for help, and there was nothing for us. It was a revolving door. Everybody saw that. And Neal was in a hurry to get that changed."

LaRoche's view should not be interpreted, however, as a sign that players were fine with losing Bay and Nady at the time. They definitely were not, especially in the case of Bay, many feeling management would have done better to simply spend more to address the pitching. Some still are privately upset.

And it cannot be coincidence -- nor can it blamed wholly on the trade returns performing mostly poorly -- that so much of the fight these Pirates displayed for the first four months suddenly was gone.

John Russell acknowledged it was among his greatest challenges in his first year as manager to react to that 7-21 August.

"I didn't know, really, at the time how big a change it was going to be," Russell said. "But, as we went through that tough month, I did realize it."

He stressed that he meant the mood, as opposed to the disappointing performances of Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss, the trade arrivals who took the everyday spots of Bay and Nady.

"It's not that we got bad guys in the trade. It's just that we lost some important people, not only on the field but also in the clubhouse. It was a difference in our season, no question. We had guys who were here a while, who were very successful, and the clubhouse was a great place to be. You bring young guys who aren't going to have that presence, things change."

Including more than a few players questioning whether how long they would remain.

"You have that sense of starting over," shortstop Jack Wilson, chief among the candidates to be traded this winter, said. "At that point, you saw the direction of the team, like, OK, this year's going to be what it's going to be. You saw that they were looking to the future."

The future?

Rebuilding with youth?

Sounds familiar.

"How many is this, No. 3 now?" Wilson asked, referring solely to his eight-year tenure. "As players, we don't really realize all the business stuff, and we don't have any control of it. We get paid to play a game, and we go out there and do that."

Huntington's stance has been consistent: The trades addressed a glaring organizational need for pitching.

"We'd have loved to keep Bay and Nady. In a perfect world, we would have. We weren't good enough," he said. "We didn't have the depth to build around them, plain and simple. And so, we had to take the big steps toward building a deeper, strong organization to get good enough so that we can hopefully keep the next generation of those types of players around. Is that going to be the class of Paul Maholm, Ryan Doumit and Nate McLouth? We hope so. We'd love to end the cycle where we trade away our five-plus players."

Any which way it is divided, the 122nd season for the Pittsburgh Baseball Club is in the books with some abysmal numbers:

• The 67-95 record marks the 12th time in franchise history with that many losses or more. The Pirates have lost at least 94 each of the past four years.

• The last-place finish -- 30 1/2 games behind the Chicago Cubs -- was the third in four years, the eighth in these 16 consecutive losing seasons.

• The team's run total, which ranked seventh in the majors at the time of the Bay trade, ended up 19th.

• The offense generated a remarkable 26 comeback victories before the trades, eight afterward including yesterday.

• And then, of course, there was the pitching: The 5.08 ERA was third-highest in the majors, fifth-highest in franchise history. The 657 walks were second-most in the majors, most in franchise history. The starting pitchers had a stunning 33 wins, fewest in the majors, an average of one every turn through the rotation. Starters not named Paul Maholm had a total of 24 wins.

The pitching in this finale was sound, as it was most of the final two weeks.

Ross Ohlendorf sprayed a bit in throwing 40 of 98 pitches for balls and lasting just 4 2/3 innings, but he allowed one run and five hits despite -- as has been the case throughout his September callup -- not having his best stuff.

He is capable of reaching 99 mph, but he started out at 93 yesterday and was down to 89 by the time Russell pulled him in the fifth. That came after a nine-pitch walk to Adrian Gonzalez put two aboard with two out. Jesse Chavez bailed him out.

Final numbers for Ohlendorf: 0-3, 6.35 ERA in five starts.

"I need to become more efficient with my pitches next year," he said.

The Pirates were trailing, 1-0, when LaRoche led off the fourth by sizing up a slow changeup from left-hander Wade LeBlanc and obliterating it into the second deck beyond right field, becoming the first ball to reach that deck in the stadium's five years. It brought an audible gasp from the 29,191 on hand.

"Normally, I hit that type of pitch on the ground somewhere, but I stayed inside it," LaRoche said.

His longest?

"It's up there pretty good."

So was the next one.

Pearce took a strike, then lined a LeBlanc fastball into the old metal company building that juts into left field, and it was 2-1.

Trying to match LaRoche?

"No way," Pearce said. "Are you kidding?"

It was his fourth home run, three of those coming on this six-game road trip during which Brandon Moss' knee injury gave him a chance to start.

Spotless relief from Jesse Chavez, T.J. Beam, Sean Burnett, John Grabow, Tyler Yates and Matt Capps took it home. Yates was outstanding again, striking out the side in the seventh. Despite tiring in August, he was scored upon once in September and struck out nine of his final 13 batters.

Jason Michaels and LaRoche had back-to-back doubles in the ninth for three insurance runs.

Maholm will be next to take the mound, April 6, 2009, at St. Louis' Busch Stadium.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at . First Published September 29, 2008 4:00 AM


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