2011 Pittsburgh Pirates: A Season on the Brink

Foreword: I approached Griggsy the other day about writing an article about the Pirates because he is a much better and more learned fan of baseball than I am or could ever be. It just so happens that we are on similar wavelength regarding the Pirates’ season and the infamous Jerry Meals safe call to end the 19-inning marathon game. I hope Griggsy and maybe even some of you out there will continue to make Avoid the Clap an enjoyable blog and provide some different perspectives on things. Comments are appreciated or you can contact us directly here .

With that, I give the floor to Griggsy.

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The Major League Baseball season lasts 162 games. It’s by far the longest of any pro sport. Baseball fans will tell you that this makes certain that the teams that deserve to make the playoffs are the ones who get in. They also will tell you that it ensures that no one game makes or breaks a team’s season.

Tell that to the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans.

In the aftermath of a 4-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves in 19 innings on July 26th (and 27th), the Pirates have gone into a tailspin of epic proportions. That game was the beginning of a stretch of 7 losses in 8 games. The Pirates have gone from a first place tie in the NL Central to being in third place, 5.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers.

All of this, as the result of arguably the worst blown call by an umpire in the history of baseball.

Before I get into that, let me state that I do not like blaming officials. By and large, the players on the playing surface decide who wins and loses. Blaming officiating tends to mask mistakes made by the players that cause them to lose.

But, in this case, the call actually decided who won the game. Not saying the Pirates would have ultimately won the game. This call, however, did not allow the Pirates to win or lose the game on merit. Jerry Meals’ call, which I won’t get into detail because everyone who is reading this either has seen the play or can go find it in 5 seconds, prevented the fair outcome of the game from occurring. After using just about every player on the roster, some for far too long, it’s a massive stomach punch to lose a game in that manner.

Teams tend to get their mettle tested after something of this nature. A lot of adversity is heaped upon a team, with exhausted and frustrated players having to come back to play another game 17 hours later. It’s not as easy for players to put a game like this behind them. It tends to linger or fester, with all the replays shown on TV, and the media wanting to talk about it, and fans complaining about it, and the team’s front office releasing a statement about it, and so on. Men that are taught to have short memories inevitably cannot shake this moment from their brains.

As mentioned, the Pirates have stumbled in the aftermath. A team that stood at 53-47 after 100 games, as they took the field for this 19-inning marathon, now has completed two-thirds of their season, and they are wobbling at 54-54. And in the last eight games, the major problem has been pitching. Before the marathon, Pirates pitchers were giving the team consistent turns through the rotation. Since then, here are the rotation’s results:

7/27- @ATL – L, 2-1 (10 Innings) – Maholm: 7IP, 9H, 1R, 1ER, 0BB, 8K
7/28- @ATL – W, 5-2 – Correia: 6.1IP, 9H, 2R, 1ER, 1BB, 3K
7/29- @PHI – L, 10-3 – Morton: 4IP, 9H, 8R, 6ER, 4BB, 4K
7/30- @PHI – L, 7-4 – McDonald: 5IP, 10H, 5R, 5ER, 2BB, 5K
7/31- @PHI – L, 6-5 (10 Innings) – Karstens: 7IP, 7H, 3R, 3ER, 2BB, 5K
8/1- v. CHC – L, 5-3 – Maholm: 6IP, 6H, 4R, 4ER, 3BB, 3K
8/2- v. CHC – L, 11-6 – Correia: 2IP, 10H, 8R, 8ER, 0BB, 2K

[EN: Per Griggsy’s request, it is to be noted that this was written prior to the loss to the Cubs on 8/3, as such those stats have not been included.]

Now, to be fair, of the seven games after the marathon, there were 3 awful starts, 1 average start, 1 good start, and 2 great starts. But it’s not just the starts themselves. It’s also the workload on the bullpen that is making the pitching staff as a whole fall apart. After the bullpen worked 13.1 of 18.1 innings in the marathon, they were forced to pitch 24.1 of 61.2 innings in the seven games since. For relief pitchers that were thriving on a reasonable number of innings, this change in workload for them has turned the bullpen into a disappointing entity as a whole. This is without even mentioning the inconsistent usage of the best reliever, Joel Hanrahan.

To review, this is now a struggling (at best) rotation, an overworked bullpen, and a confusingly used closer. It’s no wonder that the team has lost 7 of 8 games now. With the offense sputtering along (3.75 runs per game in the last eight, consistent with the 3.84 runs per game average for the season), the pitching has to be similarly consistent with the season totals. Obviously, giving up 5.88 runs per game will not cut it (nearly two full runs over the 3.94 runs allowed per game average for the year).

For those of you looking to take this forward a step, you’d ask how the Atlanta Braves are doing over this post-marathon stretch of games. If the Pirates players are worn out, the Braves played the same game, and would be similarly worn out. This has shown slightly for the Braves, as they are 4-4 over those same eight days, dropping their last three. The fatigue may be catching up with them a little bit now, but it did not in the immediate aftermath. Including the 19-inning game, the Braves went 4-1 right away. The momentum and adrenaline provided by winning that game carried the Braves in the short-term, allowing them to stay afloat despite fatigue issues. This has kept them in control of the NL Wild Card lead, albeit a slightly shrinking lead. Meanwhile, if the Pirates had gone 4-4 instead of 1-7 in these last eight games, they would be sitting in a 2nd place tie in the division, only 2.5 games behind a hot Milwaukee team.

Is the 2011 season over for the Pittsburgh Pirates, at least in terms of playoff contention? Not quite, but it is certainly at the precipice. They are a team teetering on the edge, and one more turn through the rotation with bad results would send them falling away for sure. Jerry Meals’ call didn’t devastate the season for the Buccos, but he has given them a push that may send them falling back to earth, hard, after four months of climbing towards the pennant.

And There Was Lots of Doubt About It

I know I said that there was likely to be little to be said about the Pittsburgh Pirates, but I felt the need to write about them tonight.

I was a huge fan of the Pirates as a boy. I remember going to see them at the old Three Rivers Stadium. I still have my pennant from 1990. I remember always being upset in little league when I did not end up on the Pirates (I spent my entire youth baseball career between the Phillies and the Yankees, two teams I cannot stomach). And then something happened.

The Pirates sucked. For nearly 20 years the Pirates have been a laughable joke of a franchise. They have been the bottom feeders of MLB. I stuck with them through the 90s and into the very early 2000s. I don’t recall exactly when it happened, but one day I just snapped and that was the end of it. I have spent nearly the last ten years ranting about them, and I am unsure if I am willing to welcome them back into my life.

I described the Pirates over the last ~10 years as a living, breathing version of The Producers. For those unfamiliar, the musical/production follows the story of producers who create flop productions because you make more money with a flop than you do a hit. The Pirates have been The Producers. Ownership and management was making money hand over fist while effectively abusing the fans – the real, honest fans who still believed and stuck with them no matter what. While I can respect that, I also wish that people hadn’t stuck with them like they did. It was no different than enabling an alcoholic. By enough people sticking with the team, it became evident that no matter what the owners and management did the people were going to stick with them, so why sink money into high cost players when you can develop talent and trade them off for assets when it came time for their payday?

Obviously I still harbor plenty of feelings of resentment toward the Buccos brass for all the BS they’ve pulled over the last two decades.

But are things starting to change?

I have been sucked in by the team this year. They are winning. And they aren’t just winning against garbage teams or by dumb luck. They are competing. They are winning because they are a really good, strong team on the rise. I haven’t gone to a game in 7 years, but I am being tempted by this. I have watched probably 10 games on TV, and it’s been some up and down emotions. I’m happy they are winning, but I just don’t believe it. I don’t believe it because I can’t trust the ownership and upper management to actually commit to winning. I cannot put my faith, and certainly not my terribly limited money, into this batch of devilish hands without some proof of life from them. We’ve seen how excited people get about the team and players, only to see all-star caliber players shipped off for more draft picks and cash. We’ve seen the talent come, develop, and then leave.

Is this something different?

I’m not willing to go all-in. Hell, I’m not even willing to raise at this point. Until the ownership and the management can prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are committed to competing, if not winning, regularly, and do so without trading away every player worth a damn, well, then I’ll have to bring about an end to my stand. This is not something that will be resolved in one season of hopefulness. If this is a one-and-done magic carpet ride, what comes of the “franchise” players next year? Assuming the struggle, or problems arise, do we see a return to the last 10 years of trades and fielding a minor league team?

I am not ready to commit myself to the team until I can be assured that this isn’t some sick money grab and we’ll be back to the same bullshit we’ve been dealing with for far too long. Think back to only a number of months ago when Mario Lemieux said he was interested in purchasing the team. The entire world was listening. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone imagined what it would be like to have a proven owner who was committed to winning.  Everyone had hope. And when it gets down to it, hope is all you have sometimes.

I’m not there yet. I would genuinely like to see the Pirates become successful again. It would be great to know the team has a chance to be something. It’s great for the city of Pittsburgh and for the long suffering fans who just couldn’t take the abuse any longer. But we need to careful. How easily one’s heart can be broken if things revert to the norm. Enjoy the ride right now, but don’t take your eyes off the road in front of you. You never can be certain what waits around the next bend.

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