Bob Smizik: Why Pirates have 'arrived'

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For those upset by the comic nature of the Pirates’ loss -- including a double-play perhaps unprecedented in the long history of MLB, if not Little League -- a reminder the team is 8-4 since the All-Star break and very much in both the Central Division and wild-card races should help ease their burden.

But there is a far greater reason for Pirates fans to hold high their heads today.

Who would have believed this scenario possible five years ago? Or three years ago? Or, for that matter, 12 months ago?

On the eve of the trading deadline, the Boston Red Sox, a member in good standing of the small group of teams that comprise the MLB aristocracy, were trying to unload a high-priced pitching talent and the team favored by some to acquire that player was the Pirates.

Think about that! There have been multiple signs along the way that the Pirates, after years of wandering in the MLB wilderness, have arrived. But none more so than the fact they are prominently mentioned as a team that might take Jon Lester off the payroll of the Red Sox.

What a week it has been for the Pirates and with the deadline -- non-waiver variety -- set for 4 p.m. today that could grow 10 fold.

For starters:

* Josh Harrison has wrested the third base job away from Pedro Alvarez not based on the scattershot arm of Alvarez or on some typical monster Alvarez slump, but based on the home-run power of Harrison. J-Hay hit his fourth homer in four days in the 7-5 loss to the Giants Wednesday. There is no way manager Clint Hurdle can remove him from the starting lineup. And at the moment, third base is the best place for Harrison to be playing. Alvarez is a man out of a job.

• That leaves wide open the gaping question of what the Pirates can/should do with Alvarez, who flied to left field in a pinch-hitting role Wednesday. Alvarez is batting .220 (13-for-59) this month with two homers and five RBIs. Five Pirates have more home runs in July, nine have more RBIs. Harrison has as many home runs in the past four games as Alvarez has had since June 3. Based on that and based on his significant problems in the field, Hurdle, managing a team trying to win a championship, cannot easily put Alvarez back in the lineup. Sure, he’ll get his chances, but they should be when Harrison needs a day off or when the team is better served by him playing another position.

• The bullpen must be addressed by General Manager Neal Huntington today. Hurdle has three relievers he can trust: Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Jared Hughes. That’s not enough. The Pirates might have to DFA Ernesto Frieri and/or Jeanmar Gomez; they might have to take the Jeff Clement Scholarship away from Stolmy Pimentel. But they need to add at least one and preferably two relievers who they can count on.

• No one wants to talk about this but Gregory Polanco is not playing well and the team might be better served with someone else getting the majority of the playing time in right field. In Polanco’s first 16 games, he batted .338 with an .857 OPS. In his most recent 27, he is batting .181 with an OPS of about .525. And it’s not just the recent steady diet of left-handed pitching that has hurt Polanco. He’s also not hitting right-handers very well during his current skid. If he continues to struggle, the Pirates need to look at the man many considered a lost cause -- Travis Snider. Since June 6, Snider is batting .368 (21-for-57) with an OPS over 1.000. He has an RBI every six at-bats, a home run every 11. Those are numbers hard to keep on the bench when Polanco is struggling big time.

• Minor points: Since July 13, Andrew McCutchen’s MVP train has taken a detour. He is 8-for 48 (.167) with no homers and two RBIs. ... The once-highly regarded defense of Chris Stewart continues to take a hit. He had a passed ball Wednesday and after retrieving it, he had the runner attempting to score from third easily out but threw wild to Justin Wilson, who was covering home. ... Wilson took the loss, allowing two runs, one earned. His ERA is up to 4.73 and his control is part of his downfall.

• The double play: Snider and Gaby Sanchez combined on a play that might have cost the Pirates the game and also belongs in any history of monumental team blunders. In the sixth inning, Snider was on second and Sanchez on third, both having advanced to those bases on a sacrifice. Stewart walked to load the bases. Snider, with his head totally not in the game, began to stroll to third, as though he were forced over. Catcher Andrew Susac didn't see Snider’s gaffe and threw the ball back to pitcher Jean Machi. Machi was alerted and tossed the ball to shortstop Brandon Crawford, who easily ran down Snider about 20 feet short of the third base bag.

As Snider was about to be tagged, Sanchez -- incredibly and inexplicably -- broke for home instead of standing on third. He was out by so much he tried to get back to third but to no avail. It might not have been an MLB first, but raise your hand if you've ever heard of a batter ‘walking’ into a double play.


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