Cook: Bring on the skepticism, they've got answers
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The questions will come again today, just as they will after every Pirates loss in the next couple of months. It is inevitable. If you lose 19 seasons in a row, including last year when the team had one of the worst collapses in franchise history, there is going to be skepticism. There are going to be doubts.
Is this the loss that will send the Pirates sinking like a rock again?
Why is this team better than the team of a year ago, which was in first place July 26 before taking an almost unimaginable 19-43 tumble?
"I can give you any number of reasons why we're better," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington was saying Sunday before a 3-2 loss to the great Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers. "I don't know if I can stop giving you reasons."
Huntington has to say that, right?
Well, Tigers manager Jim Leyland doesn't have to say this:
"That [collapse] won't happen this year. They've got a good team over there. I don't know if they'll win anything or not. It's a grind. It's a lot of games. But they won't have another losing season."
I'm thinking you would take that in a heartbeat. A National League Central Division title would be wonderful. A wild-card spot would be great. But after 19 years of losing, doesn't 82-80 sound pretty good? If only to enable the Pirates to shake off that heavy burden on their backs?
I'm not quite ready to jump on board with Leyland's prediction. My cup of skepticism still overflows. But it's easy to understand why Leyland made it.
Start with the starting pitching. James McDonald is a much better pitcher than he was last season. A.J. Burnett, another deserving All-Star candidate, is better than any starter from a year ago. Jeff Karstens comes off the disabled list tonight to start against the Philadelphia Phillies and should provide a lift. It's hard to imagine these Pirates losing 10 games in a row or 16 of 19, as the Pirates of last season did.
"I can't see that happening," Huntington said. "People forget that we were down to our eighth and ninth starters last August and September after we had to shut down [Kevin] Correia and [Paul] Maholm. I like our depth a lot better now. I can't see those long losing streaks. What I can see is us winning eight of 10."
The bullpen should be even better now that Brad Lincoln is headed back to make room for Karstens in the rotation. Other than Chris Resop, who has struggled much of the season and gave up an eighth-inning run Sunday to take the loss, the relievers have been outstanding. "And they have the horse at the back end," Leyland said. That would be Joel Hanrahan. The Pirates are 31-0 when leading after seven innings and 33-0 when ahead after eight.
Leyland said the Pirates should benefit from their success in the first 4 1/2 months of last season. He compared last year's team to his 1988 Pirates club, which went 85-75 and finished in second place. In 1989, early season injuries to Jim Gott, Mike LaValliere, Sid Bream and Andy Van Slyke ruined the year. In 1990, the Pirates won their first of three consecutive division titles.
"We did some good things [in '88], we just weren't quite good enough yet," Leyland said. "But that season helped us a lot."
Huntington talked of the Pirates' core players -- Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez -- being a year advanced. "McCutchen and Walker were exhausted -- mentally and physically -- by the end of last season," Huntington said. "They had been through 162 games before, but they hadn't been through 100 competitive games like we had. There's a big difference. They're better now because of it."
McCutchen hit .216 after the All-Star break last season. Baseball people are talking about him being an MVP candidate this season with his .340 average, 13 home runs and 45 RBIs. Does anyone really believe he'll slide so far back again? "He's an electric player," Leyland said. "Quietly one of the best in the game."
Then, there's the division. It's awful. Cincinnati is a good team and St. Louis has a strong lineup. But the rest? Simply awful. The Pirates have 27 games left against the division's two worst clubs -- the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs. Starting tonight against Philadelphia, they will play 52 of their remaining 91 games against teams with losing records.
The Pirates are 38-33. They have to go 44-47 to finish with a winning record. They probably have to win at least a handful more games to get a wild-card sport or even the division title.
"It's up to us to do it," Huntington said. "Until then, absolutely, I understand the skepticism."
So feel free to ask the questions today. Huntington and the Pirates welcome them. For the first time in a long time, they feel like they have the right answers for you.
Not just the answers you want to hear.
First Published June 25, 2012 12:00 am