Phillies manager feels the difference

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It isn't every manager of the National League's best team who comes to PNC Park to play the Pirates and is thrilled to go home with one win in a three-game series.

The Philadelphia Phillies' Charlie Manuel might be the first, actually.

"They come to play," he said of the Pirates.

This was late Sunday afternoon after the Phillies salvaged the third game of the weekend set, 7-3. The Pirates pitched so poorly, from out-of-control starter James McDonald to the last of six relievers, Daniel McCutchen, that the Phillies could have won, 17-3. But it didn't matter. This still was the best weekend of ball in the 11-year history of PNC Park.

Don't believe me?

Ask Manuel.

He also was the opposing manager in the only other series that came close. He brought the powerful Cleveland Indians -- on their way to a sixth division title in seven years -- to town June 15-17, 2001, to play a Pirates team that was 20-43 and on its way to 100 losses. The Pirates won all three games, the last, 1-0, when Todd Ritchie outpitched CC Sabathia and Brian Giles scored from first base in the bottom of the ninth inning on Aramis Ramirez' double to shallow center field in front of Kenny Lofton.

What a weekend that was.

"This one was a little better," Manuel said. "It had a little better feel to it. I think their team now has a little more talent. They enjoy playing. I like where they're headed."

Anybody who watched the three games against a Phillies team that's on its way to a fifth consecutive division title will have a hard time arguing that point. The Pirates played a strong game Friday night, winning, 2-1, in 12 innings, then did it again Saturday night, winning, 6-3. Even Sunday, when the pitching was so horrendous, the Pirates had a couple of chances. Jose Tabata was robbed of a hit by diving second baseman Chase Utley with runners on first and third in the seventh inning and the Pirates down, 4-2, and Garrett Jones, who suddenly seems overmatched against everyone, struck out with two on in the eighth and the Pirates trailing, 5-3.

You're not going to win every game, you know?

"I think the fans enjoyed it," Manuel said. "The crowds last night and today showed that, if they start winning, they'll definitely draw here. I think Pittsburgh is ready for a winning baseball team."

You can't get anything past ol' Charlie, can you?

Of course, Pittsburgh is ready for a winning baseball team after 18-plus seasons of losing. Even this team is 28-30, which is below .500, which is below mediocrity. But just as the series against the Phillies had a different feel to it, these Pirates have a different feel about them. It's a lot easier to believe they'll compete -- not necessarily win, but compete -- every night.

Look at the Friday night game. The Pirates got one hit in eight innings off Phillies starter Cole Hamels yet still found a way to win in 12. Pirates starter Jeff Karstens pitched a terrific seven innings. The bullpen gave up just two hits in five innings. First baseman Lyle Overbay saved the game with a diving play in the 10th. Tabata got the winning hit.

Take the Saturday night game. Right from the beginning, the Pirates showed up to play, thank you very much, Mr. Manuel. Tabata, the leadoff hitter, turned a routine bouncer between shortstop and third base into a double with pure hustle and later scored. Starter Charlie Morton pitched seven wonderful innings. Andrew McCutchen had three hits. Overbay nearly hit for the cycle.

It all comes down to starting pitching, of course. The Pirates' starters have been so much better than anyone expected and had a string of 13 games without allowing more than two earned runs before Paul Maholm blew a 7-0 lead in a 9-8 loss to the New York Mets Thursday. Karstens and Morton ran that streak to 15 out of 16 before McDonald imploded, walking three consecutive batters on 12 consecutive balls before leaving in the fifth inning. Pirates pitchers gave up 14 hits and seven walks. Pitching coach Ray Searage must have lost 20 pounds walking back and forth to the mound for consultations under the hot late-spring sun.

Now, it will be up to starter Kevin Correia -- the first pitcher in baseball to get to eight wins -- to start a new streak when the Pirates play the Arizona Diamondbacks at PNC Park Tuesday night. He has to pick up McDonald the way Karstens and Morton picked up Maholm. They didn't let that difficult loss in New York turn into two losses and then three in a row.

So far, there has been no sulking by this Pirates club.

"Hurdle, he's a very positive guy," Manuel said of Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "I've always found him to be that way. I'm sure with just him alone, they're getting very positive feedback."

The Pirates are starting to get it from other places, as well. This bunch isn't the punch line to bad jokes the way the previous 18 Pirates teams were. That it has won 17 road games after winning 17 last season is a big part of it. So is winning two out of three from the Phillies.

The crowd of 39,441 Saturday night was the largest at PNC Park. Attendance for the three-game series was 108,807. It's hard to say just how many were Phillies fans. 45,000, maybe? 50,000?

What isn't hard to say is this:

The Pirates' fans liked what they saw. Many will be back to see more.

It's the feel, I tell you.

There's definitely a different feel.

"The crowds last night and today showed that, if they start winning, they'll definitely draw here. I think Pittsburgh is ready for a winning baseball team."

-- Charlie Manuel, Phillies manager


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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