Cook: Gorzelanny justifies Tracy's faith in him

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HOUSTON -- Hold those calls for Sean Burnett, please.

Pirates starter Tom Gorzelanny showed last night in a 5-4 win against the Houston Astros that he deserves better than that.

Manager Jim Tracy deserves better.

How Gorzelanny would pitch was one of the intriguing questions when the season started this week. He had a lousy spring -- at least until his final start -- and made the team even though Burnett and Shane Youman outpitched him. Tracy's decision to keep him was met with some outrage in Bradenton, Fla., where Burnett told the media he was "furious," and in Pittsburgh, where the talk-show lines lit up.

A sample:

Joe from the South Side:

"What's that idiot Tracy thinking?"

Let me try to answer that, Joe.

Tracy was and is thinking Gorzelanny is a huge piece of the Pirates' future, right there with their other young starters Zach Duke, Ian Snell and Paul Maholm. He's thinking spring-training results, though important, aren't the be-all, end-all. He's thinking Gorzelanny pitched well for him late last season -- a 2.52 earned run average in his final eight starts -- when "the bright lights were on and we were playing for keeps." And -- bottom line -- he's thinking Gorzelanny deserved the chance to start ahead of Burnett and Youman.

"You don't tear the kid's heart out by not giving him the opportunity he earned," Tracy said.

The skipper felt so strongly about it that he said he would have kept Gorzelanny in his rotation even if he hadn't pitched well in his final spring start against the Minnesota Twins. He believes in the kid so much that he sought him out late in the spring to deliver a serious message.

"I just told him to relax and pitch," Tracy said. " 'You're not going anywhere. Relax and pitch.' "

You might guess Gorzelanny's response.

"I love the guy. I don't want to let him down."

Gorzelanny justified the faith in a big way last night, getting the win that gave the Pirates a surreal three-game sweep in a ballpark where they almost never had won against a team that's expected to contend in the National League Central Division. Maybe he wasn't as dominant as Snell was in the 3-2 win Tuesday night when Snell struck out 11 in six innings. But he was better than Duke was in the 4-2, 10-inning win on opening night.

Gorzelanny didn't get nearly the same defensive help that Duke did.

The Astros scored a run in the first inning only because first baseman Adam LaRoche couldn't get the ball out of his glove after Gorzelanny had Chris Burke picked off. They scored another run in the third after third baseman Jose Bautista couldn't handle Craig Biggio's smash down the line. They scored their third run in the fourth after second baseman Jose Castillo couldn't catch Jason Lane's routine pop fly down the right-field line.

Gorzelanny did a nice job minimizing the damage. He struck out Carlos Lee and Morris Ensberg with a runner on second base in the third inning. He gave up only the one run in the fourth after the Astros loaded the bases with no outs and might have wiggled out of that jam completely if Burke hadn't pulled a Jason Kendall and leaned into an off-speed pitch to be grazed on the right thigh with two outs.

"That was the difference in the game right there," Tracy said of Gorzelanny's fourth-inning escape act.

Tracy pulled Gorzelanny after five innings for a couple of reasons. One, the extra baserunners drove up his pitch count to 95. And two, he wanted him to walk away with a lead, feeling good about himself. The bullpen made sure Gorzelanny took home something much more tangible.

The win.

As a result, there won't be any talk about Burnett before Gorzelanny makes his next start at home Tuesday night against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Not that Tracy would have listened to it even if Gorzelanny had been rocked by the Astros.

"In order for a young pitcher to grow, he has to be allowed to pitch," Tracy said. "He has to be given the opportunity to work through things."

Tracy took the same approach with Snell early last season after Snell was knocked around in his first three starts. There were the predictable calls to send out Snell and try someone else even though the Pirates had no one of Burnett's or Youman's caliber ready in the minors.

Tracy is pretty happy he ignored those suggestions, as well. Snell ended up going 14-11 for a team that was 28 games under .500.

The Pirates will be a much better team this season if Gorzelanny rewards the boss' faith in a similar manner.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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