82 or bust? Pirates set goal, but dig deeper hole

Snell accuses Rockies of stealing signs after 5-3 loss

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette photos
Jack Wilson covers his head with a cold towel after lining out in the fifth inning yesterday at PNC Park as the Pirates' losing streak stretched to six games.
By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Eighty-two.

If it can be said that this 121st edition of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club differs in any way from its 14 failed predecessors, let the record show that it is now, officially, the first one this decade to have established a firm goal.

Several players involved in that Tuesday meeting between manager Jim Tracy and his team leaders confirmed yesterday at PNC Park, where the Pirates' losing streak reached a season-high six with a 5-3 clubbing by the Colorado Rockies, that their declared objective is to finish above .500 for the first time since 1992.

Jim Tracy -- Another tough day at the park
Click photo for larger image.

Tomorrow

Game: Pirates (LHP Tom Gorzelanny 9-4, 3.24) vs. Houston Astros (RHP Roy Oswalt 8-6, 3.91), 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.

Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).


More coverage:

Pirates Notebook: Littlefield not worried about new CEO

Gene Collier: There's no question ... it's time to give up on the Pirates

Pirates Q&A with Dejan Kovacevic


Eighty-two wins.

"That's it ... 82. That's our main goal for the second half," shortstop Jack Wilson, one of those seven leaders, said. "Even though it's a goal to get just above .500, it might win this division. And it would obviously mean we're playing pretty good baseball the rest of the way."

"It helps to have it, I think," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "We now know what we have to do: 42 wins."

In 68 games, no less.

Preposterous?

Well, never mind the dubious timing, with the Pirates 0-6 since the All-Star break, a season-low 14 games under .500 and a half-game out of the Central Division cellar.

Consider no more than this when measuring the challenge: At 40-54, with a .425 winning percentage, they would need to go 42-26, a .618 clip, the rest of the way.

Right.

Still, it could be argued that there are benefits to the thought process.

For one, if the Pirates somehow were successful, they would remove the stigma of potentially matching Major League Baseball's record for consecutive losing seasons in 2008. Focusing on that step might be necessary before making some quantum leap into contention. Remember the Milwaukee Brewers popping champagne corks in Pittsburgh two years ago for finally finishing .500?

For another, and perhaps most important, it could be considered progress that the Pirates merely have a goal, given that management never has established any sort of tangible target for team success in this decade -- unless one counts vaguely stated aspirations for general improvement -- until this one, which apparently originated with Tracy.

"We're talking about it, and it's possible. Anything's possible," reliever Shawn Chacon said. "The way we've played well in spurts, you can't rule out anything. At the same time, you've got to start somewhere. We've got a game Friday against Houston, and we have to win that. Then, we have to be consistent. Losing six in a row ..."

He did not need to finish.

"You can talk about goals," outfielder Xavier Nady said, "but we've got to start playing better, or nothing's going to come out of it."

Nothing much came out of this latest loss, other than more frustration.

Ian Snell, one of the Pirates' twin aces, gave up two-run home runs to Brad Hawpe in the third inning and Todd Helton in the sixth to afford Colorado a 5-1 lead when he exited after that inning.

Snell, tagged with seven home runs in his past four starts, was visibly displeased afterward.

With the team ...

"We don't deserve the day off," he said, referring to the opening on the schedule today. "For what? What did we do? Nothing. We've lost six games in a row. We talk about things, about how we need to do this or that ... but there's still nothing."

And with himself ...

"But I've got a lot of work to do, too, so I've got no room to talk."

Still, he kept talking, blaming Colorado for stealing signs on Hawpe's home run, criticizing home plate umpire Adam Dowdy for squeezing him, and taking exception to some unspecified incident between him and Helton on the basepaths after Snell singled in the third.

History says ...

The Pirates would need to win 42 of their final 68 games to finish with 82 wins. How they fared in their final 68 games since 2002:

Season

Final 68

Pct.

2002

28-39*

.418

2003

33-35

.485

2004

27-40*

.403

2005

27-41

.397

2006

34-34

.500

*-played 161 games that season

The accusation of stealing signs seemed foremost on Snell's mind.

"One of our players just told me that somebody was getting the signals," he said. "Hopefully, I won't pitch in Colorado because I know who it is, and I will get them."

The teams have a four-game set Aug. 20-23 in Denver.

Snell declined to identify the player but, given that the only runner aboard during Hawpe's home run -- Matt Holliday -- was at first base, Snell likely meant that Hawpe was peeking down at catcher Ronny Paulino's signals.

Hawpe denied it.

"I was looking fastball and adjusting for everything else," Hawpe said. "Not even close."

He got a first-pitch changeup and sent it into the center-field seats.

Paulino, too, rejected the notion that Hawpe or any of the Rockies were stealing signs.

Colorado's Jeff Francis zipped through the Pirates' lineup as easily as most of the opposing starters in the past week, limiting them to two runs over seven innings.

Freddy Sanchez homered off him in the sixth, and LaRoche had a solo shot in the ninth off closer Manny Corpas.

During this losing streak, the offense has produced 3.1 runs per game and has a .222 average.

"We're right back to getting a run here, a run there," Tracy said. "That's all it's been since the break."

He cited the first inning, when leadoff man Rajai Davis singled and went to third on a Sanchez double. Nobody out. Golden opportunity to break things open early.

Instead, LaRoche's groundout brought in one run, and Nady and Bay whiffed.

The Pirates, 6-0 against the Astros, can get started toward those 42 victories tomorrow.


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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