Pennant fever eludes the Pirates

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There was no indication whatsoever yesterday that Ian Snell was considering demoting himself to Class AA Altoona to see if he could strike out all 27 hitters, so the atmosphere around the Pirates remained fairly stable, except, of course, for the advancing collective psychosis.

With the first 2009 arrival of the Chicago Cubs to the North Side, perhaps it was the somewhat foggy memory of Lou Piniella's team winning more games than anyone in the National League last year, but it was otherwise fairly inexplicable that some otherwise relatively sane people were talking like a pennant race had come to town.

"This is a good opportunity in these three games to make up some ground on them," Pirates manager John Russell said from behind his desk late in the afternoon. "We need to make a push right now. This could be a big month."

It's downright charming, isn't it, that the Pirates plan to play this series, this month, and perhaps even the rest of the summer like it matters?

Fresh from taking consecutive home series from the seriously underachieving Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals, the Pirates still arrived at this pretend showdown with the Cubs with the worst record in the National League's Central Division, where the worst record is somehow closer to the best record than anywhere else on baseball's modern map. The NL Central is the competitive equivalent of a rundown suburban ranch house, with no real basement, no second floor, and the best hope for postseason escape going to whoever winds up in the crawl space above the garage that first weekend in October.

The problem, however, is that the Pirates can succeed only against teams without much interest in success. They came into this allegedly pivotal series having played winning baseball (21-17) only against losing baseball teams. Against teams at or above .500, they were 14-23.

That said, there was no predicting what all that meant to the Cubs, a defending divisional champion playing like a hobbling beer league softball team. After starting 21-14, the Cubs lost 23 of the next 37 and made it to Pittsburgh exactly a game and a half ahead of the Pirates.

It wasn't until they scored in three of last night's first four innings against Zach Duke that the relationship between these teams looked all too familiar, since Duke hasn't beaten the Cubs since May 2006. And though a win would have tied Duke for the league lead with nine, this morning he is a mere 2-4 in games where he has allowed a homer. Ryan Theriot got that one to start the third, putting the Cubs on track for a 3-0 lead that calcified into a 3-1 win.

There was no justice, however, in charging Duke with any causation malfeasance, not when Freddy Sanchez was stranding more people than a smoking PAT bus, not when Adam LaRoche was striking out in metronomic fashion, not when Jason Jaramillo and Jack Wilson were helping Chicago's Rich Harden strike out the side with two Pirates aboard in the sixth.

"I came up in some big situations," Sanchez said. "Those are the situations you play for, especially when Dukie went out and pitched a great game and you're playing the Cubs, in our division, in a big series. I just didn't get the job done."

With the bases loaded and a run home in the fifth, Sanchez went down on three pitches, the third of which he tapped weakly to Harden. With two Pirates on in the seventh, he hit into an inning-ending double play.

How significant any of it was in either locker room remains problematic, as the Cubs are not the classical profile of a contender here at the end of June, either. So far this month, they've fired the hitting coach (former Pirates instructor Gerald Perry), led Piniella to admit he once smoked dope in defending catcher Geovany Soto, forced the manager to eject his own right fielder, Milton Bradley, from the ballpark, and waited with little success for the return of injured third baseman Aramis Ramirez.

The Pirates, in an historical sense, are kind of waiting for that as well.

"We've got all these division games and we've got to talk about winning as many as possible here prior to the All-Star break," Piniella said after Harden won for the first time since the May 12. "We've got to make up some ground, or least hold our ground until we can get healthy. We've just got to hope our pitching can keep us in games and we can swing the bats a little."

The Cubs do enough swinging, but rarely get much to show for it. They were 14th in the league in runs scored, which is perhaps a by-product of hitting .218 with runners in scoring position.

For all that, the Cubs have a better chance of ending up in the crawl space than the Pirates, unless I'm underestimating a team on which 11 of the 13 position players currently have three home runs or fewer.

Don't let that spoil the pennant race on ya.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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