For Pirates, it was whistling through disaster
The Pirates' Xavier Nady is greeted at the dugout by teammates Freddy Sanchez (12) and Nate McLouth, right, after hitting a home run in the eighth inning of their game against the Atlanta Braves, Monday.
Share with others:
ATLANTA -- For all else that the Pirates can cull from their chaotic opener, they sound very much intent on focusing on this:
They could have collapsed entirely.
Or called each other out.
Or simply quit.
But, as it became clear in the did-that-really-happen aftermath of that 12-11 triumph against the Atlanta Braves two nights ago at Turner Field, they did none of the above.
Not even when one of the ghastliest gaffes in the franchise's recent history could have gotten their season off to a seriously ominous start.
- Game: Pirates vs. Atlanta Braves, 7:10 p.m., Turner Field, Atlanta.
- Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Tom Gorzelanny (14-10, 3.88 ERA last year) vs. RHP Jair Jurrjens (3-1, 4.70).
- Key matchup: The Pirates will face Jurrjens, a promising 22-year-old they nearly acquired last summer. The Detroit Tigers offered Jurrjens for shortstop Jack Wilson at the July 31 trading deadline. Former general manager Dave Littlefield rejected the offer, Atlanta traded shortstop Edgar Renteria for Jurrjens in October, and he made the Braves' rotation this spring.
- Of note: Xavier Nady's total of five opening-day home runs ranks second among all active players. Only the Cincinnati Reds' Ken Griffey Jr. has more, with seven.
"It's one of those moments that you have as a team," utilityman Doug Mientkiewicz said. "You can either sit down, shake your head and say, 'I can't believe this just happened to me.' Or you can think about your teammates and your team. You can look up at the scoreboard and say, 'Hey, this game is still tied.' We were talking right away about how we could get through this."
Mientkiewicz's reference, of course, was to the ninth inning, when closer Matt Capps inexplicably lost his impeccable command and when Nate McLouth and Jason Bay, equally inexplicably, allowed a two-out popup to drop between them for a two-run single and a 9-9 tie.
Same old Pirates?
Maybe, but maybe not.
When Capps finally got the third out that inning and he and Bay and McLouth made it back to the dugout, by all accounts, the reaction of those awaiting them was ... upbeat?
Manager John Russell, always vocal bench coach Gary Varsho and several players greeted the incoming wounded with claps and pats on the rump.
"Never seen that before, in all my years with the Pirates. Not ever," shortstop Jack Wilson said. "I'm still replaying everything that just happened in my mind, still not shaking it off, wondering if I could have done anything ... and these guys are encouraging us."
"Sometimes, you go back there, and it's total silence. Nobody's moving," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "But this ... it was, like, 'Let's go. It's still tied.' I'm telling you, there was a real confidence there. No way were we going to lose that game."
It might have made an instant impact.
- INDIANAPOLIS opens its season tomorrow at Pawtucket. RHP Bryan Bullington will start. He will face former Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon, who is starting out in Class AAA in an attempt to gain a spot in the Boston Red Sox's rotation.
- ALTOONA opens its season tomorrow against Reading. LHP Kyle Bloom will start.
- LYNCHBURG opens its season Friday at Frederick. LHP Tony Watson will start. LHP Danny Moskos, the Pirates' first-round draft pick last year, will make his professional debut as a starter next Tuesday.
- HICKORY opens its season tomorrow against West Virginia. RHP Duke Welker, the Pirates' second-round pick last year, will make his Class A debut.
Freddy Sanchez was first to the plate in the 10th, and he smacked the first pitch he saw off the left-field fence for a double. He would get stranded, but, as Mientkiewicz recalled, "Freddy's hit gave us some life. It turned the page. Score one more run, and none of this ever happened."
Capps got his pickup, too, just by watching cool, quiet Franquelis Osoria settle things with a scoreless 10th and 11th.
"Thank God for Franky," Capps said. "I can't tell you what that meant for me."
Capps never had a chance to bounce back, but McLouth and Bay did. McLouth led off the fateful 12th with a single, his third hit and fourth time on base. Bay shook off not only the gaffe but also an 0-for-6 night to that point to draw a one-out walk.
And Xavier Nady, the poster child for the Pirates' plan to trade veterans for prospects at some point, not only was on board but also led the way: His second home run, a frozen rope that barely cleared the right-field fence, brought three runs.
With only two rookies available in the bullpen, Osoria sweated through a third inning -- one more than any spring outing -- and closed it out.
It was one game, to be sure, and simple math will reveal that it should weigh no more heavily than the next 161.
At the same time, there might be some cause to take a little more from this one.
Consider, for example, that Russell and hitting coach Don Long ordered -- not advised -- everyone with a bat to show patience, particularly against Tom Glavine, whose brilliant career has been built on getting awkward swings at near-miss pitches.
The result: Of the 22 batters Glavine faced, 18 of them took ball one; two drew walks; and seven had hits. Maybe most important, his pitch count was an unwieldy 97 through five innings and forced an early exit.
That would carry relevance all the way to the 12th, when Blaine Boyer, the victim of Nady's decisive home run, represented Atlanta's last bullpen option.
"I thought we showed a lot of good patience," Russell said.
Previous manager Jim Tracy and his staff would order the Pirates' hitters to be patient on occasion, too, but it seldom seemed to resonate. Moreover, that aspect never was emphasized or instructed in a systematic manner, as was painfully evident by the team's perennially low on-base percentage.
Now, the emphasis on patience is being pushed to the point where Ronny Paulino, owner of a .407 average against left-handers last season, was benched against Glavine in favor of Ryan Doumit. The explanation: Doumit showed more patience in spring training.
The Pirates hardly were perfect Monday. The defense generally ranged from abysmal to awesome, with Wilson starting a sensational double play in the fourth inning and Bay making four fine running catches before the gaffe. Too many relievers labored, including Damaso Marte, whose two walks opened the ninth. And the baserunning left plenty to be desired, with McLouth getting picked off and Wilson being waved home to get thrown out by two strides.
"Maybe this was what we needed, to be tested like this right away," LaRoche said. "It wasn't pretty, but I'll tell you this: I liked a lot more than I didn't like in that game."
First Published April 2, 2008 12:00 am