Had a great weekend. Saturday night was spent up on Mt. Washington with some fellow bloggers from Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Louisiana for our third annual get-together. Pretty sure there were no awkward moments of silence during that gathering. It was good to reconnect with old friends, meet some IRL for the first time, and to meet others I didn’t know at all. Plus, there was a cameo appearance by Ginny of That’s Church, with her cute kids. Bluz Dude (Tony) of Darwinfish2 pulled it off again.
On Sunday, Bluz and I and a smaller group went to PNC Park to watch the Pirates and Tigers tilt. Sat next to two young bucks from Edmonton, in town for the NHL draft. They love our city. (I know they’re from Edmonton. Still!) The Bucs didn’t quite pull off the sweep, but they gave American League MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander all he wanted. They definitely did not go down quietly. Sort of glad I didn’t bring a broom to the park. Mrs. Bagger talked me out of it. That’s always a tough call. When you are one win away from a sweep, does bringing a broom to the park jinx it? Or is it the ballsy move? It’s no fun, of course, if you lose. I’ve made that walk of shame before. It’s probably better to just bring a crappy broom you don’t mind throwing away at the park.
I really thought the Bucs were going to have one of those moments on Sunday. You know, those rare comeback or walk-off wins that becomes a cherished memory of the season. Last year, it was Michael McKenry going deep for his first MLB home run off of the Cubs’ closer. Sunday was set up for that. There was a capacity crowd ready to go nuts. Verlander was the opposing pitcher. Jones had already tied it with a dinger it in the seventh. Harrison was robbed of a home run by an over-the-wall catch in the 8th. I’m telling you, just six inches further… Then, in the ninth, McCutchen hit a ball all the way to the base of the Clemente wall. I really thought that one had a chance. We didn’t need it, but it would have been nice to steal a win. Still, I had warm feeling for the Buccos on the way home. There is much to like about this team. Here is my 2012 Pirates’ love list.
All Pirate lists must start here. I fear that Pittsburgh is not fully appreciative of what they have here. This guy is what you dream a superstar to be. Humble. Nice. Smart. And clutch. This is a guy who just brings it every single game. He runs hard on every squibbed ground ball. He never moans and complains about anything. And I know he had some 0-fers, but it just seems like he is going 2 or 3 for 4 every single game. I’m not saying that they should start mining the metals for the next PNC statue… Screw it, yes, I am. In 2032, I will drag my seventy-year-old self to be at the dedication of a large, dreadlocked statue on Federal Street. Pittsburgh better enjoy him, because someday you will tell your grandchildren that you remember the days of Andrew McCutchen.
A. J. Burnett
On February 18, the Pirates got Burnett by trading minor leaguers Exicardo Cayones and Diego Moreno to the New York Yankees, who also agreed to pay $20 million of the remaining $33 million on his contract. I wasn’t sure what Burnett had left in the tank. In the past few years, Yankee fans had been booing him because of his large contract and 5.15 ERA. You’re always leery of getting a guy the other side is happy to unload. But if the Yankees were going to pay 2/3 of his contract, that is just the kind of risk a team like the Pirates need to be making. And boy, did Neil Huntington strike gold on this one. At least, so far. Besides having All-Star-worthy numbers, having a World Series ring in the locker room never hurts in the leadership department. And he reminds me of one of my favorite TV characters: Holder on The Killing. I love me some of that skinny, tattooed knuckle curveballer. Maybe he choked a bit under the media glare of New York. Maybe he’s just a country boy who thrives in a smaller venue. Whatever. Just keep those Yankee paychecks coming.
Neil Huntington’s best day as GM was the day he traded Octavio Dotel to the Dodgers for James McDonald and Andrew Lambo. It was Lambo who was supposed to be the key to the deal. He was formerly the Dodgers’ #1 prospect. This year, he’s hitting .206 for the Altoona Curve. Who knows if he will ever make it, but McDonald is arguably the ace of the Pirates’ staff and should be on the All-Star team in two weeks. From the start, I could tell that McDonald had potential and could strike out a lot of batters. But he had what Kevin Costner in Bull Durham called “a million-dollar arm and a ten-cent head.” He’d get emotional after big hits or when taken out of a game. You could tell there was immaturity there. He’d frustrate you by pitching great for 5 or 6 innings before having that 4 or 5-run meltdown during one inning each game. This year, his head seems to have caught up with his arm. I credit A. J. with taking him under his wing. Whatever, J-Mac is the man.
You heard me! Don’t look at me like that. Pedro is showing signs that he is putting it together. Is it frustrating and taking too long? Hells, yes. But what choice do we have? You can’t give up on a player with his gifts. This year he got in better shape and vastly improved his defense. It was painful to put his high-strikout .178 BA in the lineup every day, but he wasn’t going to pull out of it on the bench or in Indianapolis. And now, he’s beginning to show some confidence. And when Pedro makes contact, good gravy, does it go far! This weekend, he actually drew an intentional walk. In April, you never would have seen that. I so want to cheer for Pedro. I sense that Pittsburgh does, too. There have been a smattering of boos during the bad days, but, for the most part, Pittsburgh has been very patient with Pedro. It’s almost payback time. I can feel it.
Every championship team (yeah, I said it) needs a guy like this. They need that scrappy guy at the top of the lineup who can scratch his way on base and run like the dickens. Alex looks like he still needs to hit the weight room a bit. Let’s just say, if he ordered a beer from me, I’d card him. But I’m a fan of his left field defense. His on-base percentage needs to improve for a lead-off hitter, but it already is. For the season, it is a lowly .259. For the last 30 days, it is .28o. For the last 7 days, it is .389. In the end, he needs have an OBP at or around the .300 mark.
It may just be that I love the Hammer because whenever he comes in, the Pirates are winning in the ninth inning. Thus, I associate him with most of the Pirates’ successful moments. But I also realize that he is the most likely guy to get traded to a playoff contender desperate for a closer. The Pirates have several other candidates who could come in for the ninth and get three outs. Cruz, Grilli, and Lincoln all have the huge strikeout ratios that a closer needs. And if the Pirates could pry loose a major league right fielder with some pop, I’d pull that trigger today. Still, that’s not going to be easy. For the time being then, we all love hammer time.
Perhaps the most underrated factor of the Pirates’ success this year has been Barajas and his handling of the pitching staff. Barajas is a veteran presence. The Pirates are the seventh team he has played for. His defense behind the plate is average. He’s not going to wow you, but he’s not a liability like Ryan Doumit was. Best of all, he knows how to handle pitchers and call a game. He’s a steadying presence. On the Blue Jays, he caught A. J. Burnett before. He can still throw out a runner, stop a pitch in the dirt, and block home plate. He’ll hit in the mid-.200s and knock a few homers. He’s not spectacular but he is just the kind of guy the Pirates need back there as we await the day that Tony Sanchez is ready for the majors.
This is for Mrs. Bagger. She became a bit smitten with “The Fort” last year. She wept that night he hit his first major league home run to beat the Cubs. She will forever hold a vendetta against Prince Fielder for giving the catcher a cheap shot forearm shiver during a Brewers’ game last year. Fielder is dead to her. And, on a team without a plethora of “eye candy,” McKenry’s impish smile does it for her.
Certainly, there’s more to love.
There’s an honorable mention list with guys like Jason Grilli, Chris Resop, Erik Bedard, Matt Hague, and Josh Harrison. These are guys who are close to moving up to the big list.
And there are those who need to do a little more to earn my love. I’m talking about Neil Walker, Casey McGehee, Clint Barmes, Kevin Correia, and Jose Tabata. Garrett Jones, you’re fine. You are who you are. You’re just not list-worthy. Sorry.
But there is one more for the list. He’s our sensei, our guru, our heart. He loves Pittsburgh. He didn’t just come here to manage in the summer. He moved here. He knows the pressure of being a star from his playing days. He’s managed in the World Series. You don’t think the adrenaline is flowing? Try seven sticks of gum every three innings. God, can you believe we actually had Jim Tracy in that dugout for years? I’ve cheered for a lot of teams, but Clint Hurdle may be my favorite manager, ever. Love. Bring on Philly!