On the Pirates: Stennett reflects on sweet seven
"It's been more than 30 years now, and I'm surprised nobody's done it yet."
Those were the words of Rennie Stennett, now 58, speaking by phone from a golf course in Broward County, Florida, the morning after another Pirates second baseman, Freddy Sanchez, went 6 for 6 on the same Wrigley Field grounds where Stennett went 7 for 7 on Sept. 16, 1975.
No one else in Major League Baseball's modern era -- from 1900 onward -- has achieved seven hits in a nine-game. Baltimore's Wilbert Robinson also went 7 for 7, on June 10, 1892.
"I guess the part that's surprising is that I've seen games with 20, 30 runs scored, and I'm sure each time I see one of those that somebody will have seven hits," Stennett said. But you know what? That's the thing: Your team has to score a lot for you to get up to the plate that many times."
And, man, did the Pirates score runs that day to back Stennett, annihilating the Cubs, 22-0, on the strength of 24 hits -- three each by Willie Stargell and Frank Taveras -- and home runs by Dave Parker and Richie Hebner.
Lumber Company, indeed.
"The other thing that has to happen is that your manager has to leave you in the game," Stennett continued.
Danny Murtaugh substituted as freely as most managers do in a rout, resting Stargell, Al Oliver and Manny Sanguillen, and he even pinch-ran for Stennett but only after the seventh hit, a triple off Paul Reuschel in the eighth. Stennett, the leadoff man that day and most of that year, also had a double and five singles.
Stennett was an elite contact hitter before that frightening broken-leg injury in 1977 hampered the rest of his career, and that, of course, is part of the equation in such a feat, as well.
"I wasn't your typical leadoff man," Stennett said. "I wasn't out there to work the pitcher for a base on balls. I liked to get up there and hit. And I felt that day, if I made contact, it was going to fall in somewhere. My swing was inside out, and that was usually when I hit best. I could feel it the whole day. Didn't matter who was pitching."
The similarities continue there, obviously, with Sanchez.
"With Freddy, he's a contact hitter, so he's the type who could do something like that. You have to be able to put the ball in play. And maybe, if he'd gotten up one more time, he'd have done it."
Perhaps. Remember, Sanchez did single in his first at-bat the following night, giving him seven hits in a row.
Few baseball discussions are more common than those about records that never will be broken and, yet, Stennett's rarely comes up on the national scene.
"Well, I hear about Joe DiMaggio and others, but I never hear mine mentioned," he said with a laugh. "Maybe in Pittsburgh from time to time because people still remember it. But it doesn't come up on ESPN. Maybe somebody will have to do it again for that to happen."
The Pirates led the National League in double plays in 2007 and 2008, so it really should be no big deal that they are on top again this season with 54, right?
Well, maybe it is.
In 2007, their pitching was among the worst in baseball at allowing batters to reach, best evidenced by the opponents' .352 on-base percentage, second-highest in the league. Last year, they were the worst, at .362. With more men on base, obviously, there are more chances for double plays than for a team with better pitching.
Now, though, the Pirates have improved to .340 in that category, almost exactly the league average.
And what easily can be taken from that is that Jack Wilson and Sanchez -- as well as strong-armed third baseman Andy LaRoche -- are, plain and simple, very efficient at turning double plays. Sometimes, as often is seen, they are spectacular.
As Sanchez put it, "It's nice to finally see those numbers, without the pitching numbers attached."
Brad Lincoln, the Pirates' only top-notch pitching prospect so long as Bryan Morris keeps getting injured, has had quite a May with Class AA Altoona: 0.80 ERA, 29 strikeouts and six walks in five starts. Overall, he is a richly undeserving 1-3 with a 2.05 ERA.
Sounds like a candidate for a promotion to Class AAA Indianapolis, right?
Maybe not yet.
Two starts ago, the Pirates tracked that a remarkable 81 of Lincoln's 91 pitches were fastballs, a path that will get any starter annihilated upon climbing the ladder.
"A starting pitcher typically needs three pitches to succeed at the major league level," director of development Kyle Stark said. "Lincoln's change came a long way last year at Lynchburg. It's been delayed to an extent this year because the focus has been on solidifying a delivery adjustment and the return of his curveball, which is one of the main reasons he was drafted in the first round. As those things solidify -- and they are -- the change can become more of a focus."
That is one example of the organization emphasizing what general manager Neal Huntington often calls "real predictors of success" over traditional measurements. For example, rather than simply looking at hits, the Pirates track hard-hit balls, even when they are outs.
The Dummy has a name.
The life-sized, plastic stand-in batter the Pirates have been using -- and abusing -- since the opening of spring training finally is being called something other than The Dummy: Meet Oye.
Oye is Spanish for "Hey!" and it originated with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, whose relentless shouts for Hispanic bullpen coach Luis Dorante, bullpen catcher Heberte Andrade and catcher Robinzon Diaz prompted them to apply a large swath of white masking tape across The Dummy's back as a nameplate.
"Now, he's Oye," Andrade said. "Like a real person."
Only with a lot more bruises.
First Published May 31, 2009 12:00 am