Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura

It’s great to have the Pirates back

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At some point in the eighth inning, I remember going out to concourse of old Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta and watching Atlanta Braves fans slowly shuffle toward the exits and their cars and another long baseball off-season. It is all well and good to say that baseball fans should stay to the end but there are life realities. There’s school in the morning. There’s work in the morning. Braves fans — not a lot of them, but some — went to face their life realities, and I watched them go.

It was a Wednesday night in October. I was just 25 years old and just starting out in the business. Josh Hutcherson had just been born. Bill Clinton was about to be elected president. It was 1992. And nobody in Atlanta really wanted to stick around and watch the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrate their trip to the World Series.

There was nothing at all strange then about the Pirates being on the doorstep of the World Series. The Pirates were good. They were usually good. They were good every year of the 1970s. They started that decade with Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell and Richie Hebner, they were the Pittsburgh Lumber Company, they pounded teams into submission. They ended the decade with Dave Parker and Willie Stargell and Bill Madlock, they were family. They won two World Series in the 1970s, made the playoffs six times. They had a bit of a lull in the early-to-mid 1980s, but then they got Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke and Doug Drabek and won the National League East three years in a row.

They led 2-0 going into the ninth inning on that October day, and fans streamed for the exits, and none of us had even the slightest inclination that it was all about to end for Pittsburgh baseball.

Drabek, the ace, started the ninth — he had thrown eight shutout innings and Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland was going to stick with his guy. Atlanta’s Terry Pendleton doubled to lead off the inning. Then Dave Justice grounded to second, but Jose Lind botched the play. There were runners on first and third with nobody out. I was back in the auxiliary press box inside the stadium and I imagined the people heading toward their cars stopped and turned around. I know that everyone in the stadium started waving their arms in that Tomahawk Chop. My ears still ring.

Sid Bream walked. That loaded the bases. That’s when Drabek was pulled. Stan Belinda came on to pitch.

Ron Gant hit a sacrifice fly that scored Pendleton. The score was 2-1. Damon Berryhill walked to load the bases up again. Then Brian Hunter hit an infield pop-up that wasn’t deep enough to score anybody. Two outs. Bases loaded. Everybody in Atlanta knows what happened next. Everybody in Pittsburgh knows what happened next. A 25-year-old career pinch-hitter named Francisco Cabrera stepped to the plate. In his career, Francisco Cabrera would hit .254. He would have 89-career hits in the regular season — one of them a memorable home run off Rob Dibble that saved the 1991 season. He had three hits in the postseason — one of them was this one, the most famous hit in Atlanta Braves history, I guess.

Cabrera rapped a single to left field, toward Barry Bonds, to score the tying run. And then Sid Bream barreled around third and headed for home. Bream was absurdly slow and also injured. He was perpetually injured. In my mind’s eye, I see him running on crutches. Bonds’ throw home was pitiful. It rolled toward the plate. Bream’s slide eluded the tag of catcher Mike LaValliere. The throw would become infamous. The slide would become famous. The Braves won and would go to the World Series. The Pirates lost and would disappear from view for the next 20 years.

Looking back, the dismantling of the Pirates really was sudden and shocking. They had won three division titles in a row. Then Barry Bonds would go to San Francisco. Doug Drabek left for Houston. Mike LaVallierre would be released. Andy Van Slyke would never have another healthy season. The error man, Jose Lind, was dealt off to Kansas City. The Pirates did what bad teams do. They signed veterans past their prime. They signed a 39-year-old former Pittsburgh hero named John Candelaria and a 38-year-old Lonnie Smith. And the horror began: 87 losses that first year. The next year, they brought in a 38-year-old Lance Parrish. The next year, they released pitcher Tim Wakefield just as he was about to be good. They kept losing.

They traded away hometown heroes Jay Bell and Jeff King to save some money. They kept blundering the draft. This is pretty striking three year stretch in the draft:

In 1997, they took first baseman J.J. Davis in the first round — the next first baseman picked was Lance Berkman.

In 1998, they took lefty pitcher Clinton Johnson — the next left pitcher selected was CC Sabathia.

In 1999, they took right-handed pitcher Bobby Bradley — the next righty pitcher taken was Ben Sheets.

The Pirates had losing records ever year. They moved into beautiful PNC Park in 2001. They celebrated by losing 100 games. They celebrated THAT by taking righty pitcher Bryan Bullington with the first pick in the draft — even with Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain on the board. They kept on losing. In the mid 2000s, they lost 95, 95, 94, 95 and 99 in succession. The 2010 Pirates were a disaster, the worst Pittsburgh team in more than 50 years. They scored the fewest runs, gave up the most runs, lost 105 games and seemed as doomed as a team can seem. Only the Marlins in the National League drew fewer fans.

That was the heartbreaking part because Pittsburgh — like my own hometown of Cleveland — has a wonderful spirit, and that ballpark might be my favorite in all of baseball. But it was depressing inside. Bad baseball. A despondent fan base. I remember going to the park in 2011 when the Pirates, against all odds and logic, were tied for first place late in July. It was getting exciting. They promptly lost 28 of their next 37 to crash to earth. I remember going to park in 2012 when the Pirates, against all odds and logic, were 16 games over .500 in early August. It was getting exciting. In one dreadful stretch lost 23 of 30 and finished with a losing record for the 20th straight season.

And so this year has been wonderful because, once again, their success seemed a bit illogical and dangerously fragile. They have counted on a 29-year-old pitcher Francisco Liriano, who most people around baseball had written off. They have counted on slugging Pedro Alvarez, who swings and misses about as much anybody in the game.* They have counted on 36-year-old Jason Grilli to be a closer for the first time in his long and erratic career, on A.J. Burnett at 36 to keep putting the Yankees years behind him, on mega prospect Starling Marte to emerge and superstar Andrew McCutchen to get even better and play like the league MVP.

*According to Fangraphs, here are the top swing-and-kissers of 2013:

1. Chris Carter, Houston: 34.5% miss percentage.

2. Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh: 34.4% miss percentage.

3. Dan Uggla, Atlanta, 33.0% miss percentage

4. Mark Reynolds, Yankees, 32.6% miss percentage

5. Mike Napoli, Boston, 31.8% miss percentage.

And all those things happened, the Pirates were in first place in late July again, and then came the second mini-miracle: They did not collapse. They lost seven of nine at one point and looked to be heading toward collapse, but they settled down. McCutchen since the beginning of July is hitting .350/.451/.564. Liriano, after one dreadful start at Colorado, is back holding batters to about a .200 batting average. They have found ways to scrape through and here they are, making the playoffs for the first time since Sid Bream slid.

I personally wish the postseason race between the Pirates and Reds was still going on, with the winner getting into the first round of the playoffs. As it stands now, the Pirates and Reds will face off in a one-game playoff for the right to go on, and that’s kind of a bummer. Whoever loses that game, their postseason ends on the spot. That would be a real letdown for either city, but especially in Pittsburgh after 20 years of suffering. But this is how the baseball playoffs work now, and, hey, the Pirates are in the postseason again. So is Atlanta. If things play out, they could face each other. That would be fantastic.

Of course, there’s no more Fulton County Stadium — it was imploded more than 15 years ago. Sid Bream is 53 and a motivational speaker. Barry Bonds is 49, the all-time home run champ, and widely despised. Mike LaValliere is 53 and coaches kids now. Bill Clinton hasn’t been president in more than a dozen years. Josh Hutcherson turns 21 in October, he’s a big star and he is my 12-year-old daughter’s crush — which seems to mean that I’m now old enough to have a 12-year-old daughter. Yeah, a lot of time has gone by. It’s good to have you back Pirates.

Video: Jeff Samardzija breaks a bat over his knee after striking out

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Jeff Samardzija had a great night last night. He allowed one run on three hits over eight innings and picked up the win. In the early going he’s proving wrong those who thought that the Giants overpaid for him and is providing solid performance from the third spot in the Giants rotation. It’s all good.

But good is not always good enough for a professional athlete. Especially one like Samardzija, who excelled in multiple sports and likely can count his lifetime athletic failures on one hand. No, when you’re wired like that you get upset even when you’re excellent because sometimes you want to be perfect.

For example, most pitchers don’t get too worried about striking out. They’re there to pitch, not bat. They turn on their heel and calmly walk back to the dugout. Samardzija, however, got a bit irate when he struck out. Then he did this:

And That Happened: Tuesday’s scores and highlights

Toronto Blue Jays Justin Smoak watches the flight of the ball after hitting a two run walk off home run off Texas Rangers pitcher Phil Klein during the tenth inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, May 3, 2016 in Toronto.  (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Associated Press
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I woke up at 3am today. In the past when that happened I’d post And That Happened at like 4:30AM or some dumb thing. I’m just not doing that anymore. I wrote a personal blog post about it this morning explaining why. It’s mostly part of an effort to not wake up at 3am anymore. If anyone has issues with that, maybe it’ll help. Or maybe you’ll be able to tell me that I’m deluded and my little plan to not wake up at 3am is doomed. I dunno. If you care, there’s a picture of one of my cats there too. She says hello to Kevin Kiermaier.

Anyway: Here are the scores. Here are the highlights.

Blue Jays 3, Rangers 1: Holy Smoak! Justin Smoak tied the game with a homer in the bottom of the ninth and then won the game with a walkoff homer in the 10th. They were his first two homers of the season. If any nerds in their mother’s basement so obsessed with his spreadsheets that he can’t be bothered to watch a dang ballgame is devising some Home Run Leverage Index — HeRLI, we’ll call it — Smoak definitely leads the league in that category.

Royals 7, Nationals 6: Down two in the ninth and the Royals rallied, first with a two-run single from Mike Moustakas to tie it up then with a walkoff single from Lorenzo Cain. Three runs and five hits in the ninth, all off of Jonathan PapelbonChien-Ming Wang got the win after pitching a scoreless top of the ninth. That’s his first win since 2013.

Indians 7, Tigers 3: Francisco Lindor hit a three-run homer, got two other hits and played his usual stellar defense. It’s a testament to how many great young players there are in the game right now that, when people are asked to list them, he’s usually fifth, at best, when they do so. It’s also something of an insult to him.

Brewers 5, Angels 4: Two homers for Chris Carter. He hit two homers on Sunday too. Former Brewer Khris Davis hit two homers on Monday and, if I remember correctly, hit two in a game multiple times last year too. Brewers should probably just get a whole lineup of Chrises at some point and see how it works. What do they have to lose?

Orioles 4, Yankees 1: Two homers for Mark Trumbo and a solid outing for Chris Tillman. Six straight losses for the Yankees and the bats are still moribund. It’s their worst start in 25 years. Oh, and A-Rod tweaked his hamstring so he’ll probably miss some time. I’ve been impressed with how little “If The Boss was still alive . . .” rumbling, but it’s starting:

Cubs 7, Pirates 1: Jake Arrieta allowed only two hits in seven shutout innings agains the team he handcuffed the last time he faced them too, in the 2015 NL Wild Card game. Kris Bryant had a couple of hits. The Cubs have a five-game lead already, and two of the teams trailing them are, like, good.

Giants 3, Reds 1: The Reds were up 1-0 in the eighth and blew it by giving up two runs. According to the good folks at the Elias Sports Bureau, the Reds pen has given up at least one run in each of the Reds’ last 21 games, which is the longest such streak in major league history. Congratulations, you guys. You did it.

Braves 3, Mets 0: The better Matt won. At least the better Matt on this day, as Wisler topped Harvey, tossing eight innings of one-hit ball. The Braves have somehow won three of five. Time to pop the champagne.

Marlins 7, Diamondbacks 4Ichiro Suzuki hit a two-run pinch-hit single to put Miami ahead. The old man is still an artist with the Thompson. He’s now at 2,947 for his major league career. Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich homered.

Dodgers 10, Rays 5Trayce Thompson, Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig all homered. Puig’s was an absolute moon shot. Thompson drove in four. This is the Dodgers’ first trip to Tampa Bay since 2007. A change of scenery often helps people get out of a funk and this change of scenery helped the Dodgers’ bats wake up. No one said it had to be a change to good scenery to fix a funk.

White Sox 4, Red Sox 1: Sox win!

Astros 6, Twins 4Jason Castro and George Springer each hit homers. Castro’s barely cleared the fence and had to be confirmed via replay. Springer’s hit the dang train tracks high up in the outfield seats. They both counted for the same. At least once you adjusted for the fact that Castro was on base when Springer hit his. It’s all a very complicated set of operations to do that involving some fairly esoteric math so I won’t go too deeply into it.

Phillies 1, Cardinals 0: Aaron Nola threw seven shutout innings and Ryan Howard homered against his hometown team. He has always liked hitting in St. Louis. Guy has 12 homers and 40 RBI in 36 games in Busch Stadium. Remember a few years back when Buster Olney was peddling a rumor that the Cardinals and Phillies were gonna do a Pujols-Howard swap? Yeah, it probably had its genesis in some random “Howard sure would do well here” talk that got out of hand.

Mariners 8, Athletics 2Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Leonys Martin hit home runs. Hisashi Iwakuma pitched seven innings, allowing just one run. The M’s are 15-11.

Padres 6, Rockies 3: The Rockies built an early 3-0 lead off of Andrew Cashner, and if you get to him early you can get to him big. But he settled down, Matt Kemp and Brett Wallace hit back-to-back home runs in the fourth inning to bring it closer and then the Padres scored three in the sixth and won going away.

Bronson Arroyo is throwing side-arm now

Washington Nationals pitcher Bronson Arroyo catches a pop fly during a drill at a spring training baseball workout, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, in Viera, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
AP Photo/John Raoux
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Nationals pitcher Bronson Arroyo has partial tears of tendons in his rotator cuff in his right shoulder. Considering he’s 39 years old, no one would fault him if he decided to call it quits. But he has one more idea, MASN’s Mark Zuckerman reports: Arroyo is going to throw side-arm, or at least three-quarters.

“It hurts when he gets on top [of the baseball],” manager Dusty Baker said. He continued, “So we’re taking our time. And if not, if nothing else, he’s a good guy to have in your organization.”

Arroyo missed the latter half of the 2014 season and the entire 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Prior to that, he was known as a workhorse, racking up at least 199 innings in each of nine seasons between 2005-13.

Robbie Erlin needs Tommy John surgery

San Diego Padres' Robbie Erlin pitches during the first inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Tuesday, April 12, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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Padres pitcher Robbie Erlin has a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament and he’ll need Tommy John surgery as a result, Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Times reports. Erlin landed on the disabled list on April 21. Now he’ll miss the rest of the season and likely the beginning of the 2017 season as well.

Erlin, 25, posted a 4.02 ERA with a 13/3 K/BB ratio in 15 2/3 innings spanning two starts and one relief appearance to begin the 2016 season.

Cesar Vargas moved into the rotation in Erlin’s absence and has pitched well thus far in two starts, yielding only one earned run with a 9/6 K/BB ratio over 10 1/3 innings.