Baseball 2007: Deep-sixed in first six?
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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette photo illustration
Zach Duke gets it.
Even though he will pitch a Major League Baseball opener for the first time tonight in Houston, even though friends and family from his nearby hometown will be on hand, even though no game is played on a bigger stage ...
"The biggest thing for me -- for all of us, I think -- is that we're all tired of hearing about the 14 straight years of losing baseball for the Pirates," Duke said. "And, for us to get that negative connotation off of us, we're going to have to start on a good note. We're going to have to get to PNC Park with something going. And the only way to do that is to win the first two series."
Adam LaRoche is new, and he gets it, too ...
"Having a good start is probably a little more important for this team than some others," he said. "I'm sure they've gotten off to some bad starts here. And when that happens, it's pretty easy to say, 'Oh, well, maybe next year,' and call it a season. We can't let that happen."
It might seem outrageous to suggest six games could make or break a season, but perhaps not as it relates to this 121st edition of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club.
Three in Houston.
Three in Cincinnati.
Those two series make up just 3 percent of the 162-game schedule, but they undoubtedly will be much more meaningful than that ratio suggests.
Consider that the Pirates lost their first six games of 2006 and were 1-6 by the time the gates opened at PNC. The home opener brought an 8-3 whipping from the Los Angeles Dodgers -- and boos for Duke, a rookie darling the year before -- and the next thing anyone knew, the record was 8-23 for the franchise's worst start in more than a century.
Oh, well, maybe next year.
With apologies to Duke, an examination of those 14 years of losing baseball confirms that April does, indeed, portend the Pirates' fate: Only twice, in 1994 and 2002, have they had a winning April. And the cumulative April record during the streak is 136-176, a .435 percentage.
The 7-19 April last year was the worst, and probably not just in terms of numbers. The clubhouse almost instantly became quiet, individuals became withdrawn from the group, and it was early May in Phoenix when manager Jim Tracy told his players -- behind closed doors -- to stop paying attention to the standings.
"You always come out of spring training feeling good, and we did," left fielder Jason Bay said. "And we just had that shot down right away in the first week. Then, people have their opinions, and there are doubts. ... We were behind the eight ball right out of the chute and stayed there the entire year."
A sequel this year would prove even more damaging. Including the opening two series, 23 of the Pirates' first 29 games are within the Central Division.
What will it take to avoid it?
The obvious answer is starting pitching. The Pirates' young rotation, Duke included, regularly was rocked and chased early in games. Even Ian Snell, who went on to 14 victories, nearly was demoted to the minors.
That put pressure on an incapable offense, and it wore down what might have been a highly capable bullpen.
"It has to be on us, and we know that," starter Paul Maholm said. "The team turned around when we did."
But it also will take many more runs than what the Pirates scored last season -- even during their 37-35 second half, they had the fewest in the majors -- as well as drastically improved defense. LaRoche surely will help on both counts, but that will not suffice. Chemistry needs to occur rapidly, in the lineup and on the field.
Individually, some players stand out as key.
Start with Duke. If he sustains his solid final two months of 2006 and regains that golden rookie form, he and Snell will form a fine 1-2 combination.
The first signs came with an encouraging spring, but tonight will be more telling.
"I know a lot of how we start is on the pitcher with me pitching twice in these first six games," Duke said. "That's fine. I like to be that guy."
Tom Gorzelanny is another. He could be on a short leash after an erratic spring but, more important, the Pirates can ill afford repeated bad starts early on.
"Doing well at the beginning is very, very important, not just for me but for the whole team," he said. "You look around, and you see that a lot of the teams with good starts continue the trend."
Chris Duffy will face the first pitch tonight from Roy Oswalt, and doubts about him remain. He was sub-Mendoza in the spring, and memories are fresh of his disastrous April last year.
"I'm ready to go," Duffy said.
Jose Castillo, publicly criticized and stripped of his starting duty, will get a large challenge right off the bat. He will replace National League batting champion Freddy Sanchez at second base, and he will try to feed off a .328 spring.
He has been stressing a starting-over attitude.
"Last year is last year, for me and the team," Castillo said. "I believe in this team. We've got a lot of new guys in here. Nobody will choose the Pirates. But we didn't have LaRoche when we started last year, or Xavier Nady. We didn't even have Ronny Paulino."
"Maybe me, too. But I'm going to play good baseball this year."
That notion about the difference in the rosters is one several players raised.
The early 2006 Pirates had, in addition to an inexperienced rotation, Sean Casey hitting three home runs in the first half, as opposed to LaRoche at first base now. Jeromy Burnitz was in right rather than Nady. Joe Randa was starting while the Pirates kept Sanchez on the bench. Paulino was catching for Class AAA Indianapolis.
That might explain why shortstop Jack Wilson bristled when asked about the opening trip being important.
"It stinks because it actually is important, and it shouldn't be," he said. "But, you know, we're the Pirates. If we struggle on that first road trip, everyone's going to talk about same old, same old. And that's not the way this team should be treated. This team is going to win. We have a great lineup, great defense, and I think we can have good pitching, too."
The best team in his seven years?
"Oh, yeah, not even close. And we'll get off to a good start and feed off it."
LaRoche, too, stressed the positive that could come from a good opening trip.
"The way I think about it is that, boy, it sure would be nice, especially with a team that has as much potential as this one, to come out hot. That way, even if something goes wrong down the road, we have something to look back on to know that we can do it. And I believe that's going to happen."
Surely, few outside the Pirates' clubhouse will believe it until they see it.
"That's fine," Duke said. "Let's play. It's time to show we're for real."John Heller, Post-Gazette
Pirates opening day starter Zach Duke is looking to regain his golden rookie form.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published April 2, 2007 12:00 am