Gene Collier: Perez not top-notch; hopefully Duke is

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Eventually, with great difficulty, as if it were the baseball equivalent of your despicable 15-year-old lawn mower excavated from the annual winter avalanche of throw-it-in-the-garage junk, the Pirates' season roared to life yesterday a couple of hundred miles downriver.

It was the unlikely fifth starter Victor Santos who finally yanked the cord hard enough for the belch of gray smoke that was a 5-3 victory against the Cincinnati Reds, the first of the Jim Tracy era after a real skunky six pack of season-opening losses.

Tom Uhlman, Associated Press
Pirates manager Jim Tracy takes left-hander Oliver Perez out of the game against the Reds Saturday in Cincinnati.
Click photo for larger image.

Tracy will hand the baseball to Zach Duke around 1:35 p.m. today for the Pirates' home opener, which is what he should have done Monday in Milwaukee instead of trying to milk a nonexistent quart of maturity out of Oliver Perez by making him his No. 1 starter. By putting Perez first and slotting Duke third last week behind Santos, Tracy assured that his best pitcher would start only once in the season's first seven games.

Number of quality starts (6 innings or more, 3 earned runs or fewer) the Pirates got in their first seven games: 1.

By Zach Duke.

Still, that misstep is highly forgivable, inasmuch as it still appeared there was something to be gained by indulging Perez in this psychological charade that he wants to be the ace, wants to be the leader of the staff, wants to be the pitcher who boosts his teammates onto his shoulders when they can't move under their own power.

Perhaps he wants to be an astronaut as well. It ain't happenin'.

Coming off a nine-strikeout, no-decision performance in the opener, Perez had an opportunity Saturday in Cincinnati to do what No. 1 starters do, specifically to end a four-game losing streak whenever it might occur. As this club dropped five in a row right out of the gate, the urgency that the No. 1 starter rectify things virtually throbbed through the clubhouse.

"Go after the bat," Tracy had been telling his pitchers all spring.

Convinced that an upgraded defense will allow Pirates pitchers to throw frequent strikes within reasonable parameters, the manager had been conspiring to keep the game simple for a rotation that is, on average, barely 24 years old.

"Go get the bat," he'd say. "When you throw ball one, ball two, you're going to start limiting the available locations of the pitches that follow, and when you do that, balls are going to get hit hard."

The week before the season started, Perez allowed that part of his plan for this season was not to over-think things. That's great. But Saturday against the Reds, he under-thought everything and wound up taking Tracy's go-get-the-bat mantra far too literally. He found Rich Aurilia's bat with an unconscionable 3-0 curveball, found Austin Kearns' bat with an 0-2 pitch that should have been put anywhere but, you know, there. Aurilia and Kearns homered to send Perez on his way to an eight-run, four-walk, six-hit, 3 1/3 innings of stone thoughtless pitching in a game the Pirates eventually lost, 11-9.

That settled his two-start ERA at 6.23, just a little bit higher than the 5.85 he laid down last season for the part of the summer in which he wasn't idle for having kicked the laundry cart.

The recurring issue with Perez, beyond his predilection for multiple release points, arrhythmic windups, and spastic hotdoggery, is velocity. It is one thing to say simply that he doesn't throw as consistently hard as he did in 2004, when his 239 strikeouts somehow allowed the delusional to compare him to Sandy Koufax and Steve Carlton, but a complementary question never seems to surface: What happened to the devastating slider?

What Perez is throwing up there is a load of substandard, uh, stuff. Through Saturday, his presence at the top of the rotation had led the club to a record of 0-4 in games in which it scored five runs or more. This is why Duke has to take command of this situation this afternoon. If the Pirates are going to stabilize themselves after this staggering start, they'll have to do it with Duke at the top of the rotation and Perez at the bottom.

Otherwise, you're really just looking at the same old lawn mower.


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


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