Bob Smizik: Patience just might pay off for Tracy

Patience could pay off for Tracy, Pirates fans

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Pirates fans are frustrated and it's easy to understand why. The team they follow has gone through 14 consecutive losing seasons and, what's worse, a 15th is looming.

They're tired of rooting for a loser; they're sick of having their hopes dashed in May instead of August or September; they're disillusioned with players who rarely live up to expectations.

They're fuming that ownership -- Bob Nutting and Kevin McClatchy -- won't ante up enough money to put a good team on the field; they're livid with general manager Dave Littlefield for failing to secure enough good players; and, most of all, they're seething that manager Jim Tracy continues to reward underachievers with spots in the daily lineup.

Consider the game last night at PNC Park against the Houston Astros. Tracy gave another start to Paul Maholm, who was 0-2 with a 6.19 earned run average. What's more, he stuck with catcher Ronny Paulino, whose batting average was .182 and whose defense had been awful.

"I believe in my players," Tracy said. "I don't really feel like 17 games into a season you think about making drastic changes because of the ramifications of how that might be interpreted in the clubhouse.

"Fifty or 60 at-bats two months from now will be so far in the past you'll look at it and wonder if it was even worth having a conversation about."

Tracy made those comments before the game, which means they look pretty good today after the Pirates' 3-0 win, a game in which Maholm was masterful and Paulino showed signs of snapping his slump.

Maholm put the Astros away in one hour, 57 minutes with a 99-pitch gem in which he allowed three hits and one walk. He was so strong, in the first complete game of his career, that none of the Astros' four baserunners reached second.

Paulino, who was the team's best hitter in spring training but has come up dry since the regular season began, hit his first home run and singled to raise his average to .207.

Maholm, whose problem had been falling behind hitters, came right after the Astros. His first seven pitches were strikes and once he got into his groove the Astros were helpless.

"Everything was working," he said. "My mechanics stayed good and I kept the ball down and mixed speeds. My main goal was to throw strikes and keep the ball down."

Paulino and Maholm aren't the only struggling Pirates Tracy is sticking with. Adam LaRoche was hitless in four at-bats and struck out twice. His latest slump has him with one hit in 19 at-bats. His average dropped to .098 and he has 24 strikeouts in 61 at-bats

As much as it might anger some fans, LaRoche's job is not in danger. Neither are any of the struggling regulars.

"If we're going to be a good club, we need them," Tracy said. "They're not going to do us any good sitting over there watching the game. They're not going to get any better and they're not going to have any opportunity whatsoever to figure out what it is they need to figure out to be the players that we know they're capable of being by watching."

Tracy is right. Of course, it's too early to give up on players, particularly proven ones such as LaRoche, who hit 32 home runs with Atlanta last season. It's also too early to give up on unproven players, such as Maholm, whose promise has earned him the opportunity.

There was a lot of squawking early last season about Ian Snell, who made the starting rotation based on his performance in spring training, but fell upon hard times when the season opened.

In five starts in April, Snell was 1-2 with a 5.79 ERA. Opponents batted .319 against him. If Tracy wavered in his support of Snell, he never let on. Snell righted himself, won four games in May and finished 14-11 on a team that was 28 games under .500.

Snell said he never worried as he was belted around in April.

"I knew what kind of confidence Tracy and [pitching coach Jim Colborn] had in me and the other guys. I really wasn't worried about getting off to slow start. It happens. It's baseball. It's not an easy sport.

"Look at [Albert] Pujols. Look at Ryan Howard. They're off to slow starts. It happens to everybody."

Tracy didn't need the performances of Snell and Paulino to justify in his faith in his players.

"Sometimes it takes a little more time and you have to show patience," he said. "You like think in a lot of cases when you do that it ends up paying dividends for you over the course of the season."

He's right again, even if the team's frustrated fans have a hard time accepting that philosophy.



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