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.

And That Happened: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Cubs 4, Giants 1: Jon Lester tossed a complete game with 10 strikeouts and needed only 99 pitches to get it done. That’s not a “Maddux” — that requires a shutout — but in terms of efficiency it’s almost more impressive given that, you know, you need at least three pitches to strike a dude out. Schwarber, Heyward and Rizzo homered for the Cubbies.

Twins 2, Orioles 0: Ervin Santana did, in fact, shut out his opponents and he did it with a complete game two-hitter. He needed 105 pitches to do I think he’s fine with that.

Indians 8, Reds 7: If you’ve talked to Indians fans much in the season’s first couple of months the thing you hear most often is disappointment in Edwin Encarnacion‘s performance. There was no problem with it here, as he hit two homers and drove in three. Worth noting that Encarnacion’s big league debut came in a Reds-Indians game. That was on June 24, 2005, when he was playing for Cincinnati in a series up in Cleveland. I’ll always remember it because earlier that day I was checking into a hotel there and Encarnacion was in front of me in line, having just made it to town from Louisville. When he gave his name the Marriott lady handed him a big envelope with maps and parking instructions and a wad of cash and all kinds of other things left there for him by the Reds. He seemed confused and overwhelmed. He also went hitless in his first six games. No matter how much he accomplishes in his career, I always think of him as that confused guy at the Cleveland Marriott and I’ll always root for him a little bit.

Braves 6, Pirates 5: Matt Adams is quickly making friends in Atlanta. He homered in the sixth to bring the Braves to within a run and then he hit a walkoff single in the bottom of the 9th to give them the win. In between those events came a three-hour rain delay. The game ended just before 2AM and, rain delay included, meant for a 6 hour, 15 minute evening. There were probably only 200 fans in Sun Trust Park when Adams hit that game winning single, but every one of those 200 people started a band.

Nationals 10, Mariners 1:Anthony Rendon homered twice and drove in five and Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth each went deep as well. Joe Ross got ten runs to work with but he didn’t need ’em, as he allowed only one run over eight innings of work. Rendon was asked how the Nats scored all those runs and said “I don’t know, I guess we were swinging at good pitches.” The reporter’s response:

Rockies 8, Phillies 2: Charlie Blackmon went deep twice, both two-run shots. He leads all of baseball with 40 RBI. He’s played in 46 games. He’s led off 45 times and batted ninth the other time. Take that, people who care about batting order.

Red Sox 11, Rangers 6Xander Bogaerts had three hits and three RBI but the stat I find most impressive is that he scored on wild pitches twice, once from Andrew Cashner, once from Jeremy Jeffress. The Sox had 11 runs on 12 hits and drew eight walks from Rangers pitching. This box score looks like it came straight out of 1999 or so.

Royals 6, Yankees 2: New York had a 2-0 lead heading into the seventh but then the Royals put up a three-spot in the next two frames. All eight runs in this one came via the longball: Cain, Bonafacio, Merrifield and Moustakas for Kansas City, Hicks and Carter for the Bombers. Danny Duffy got the win after striking out seven over seven. It was his second win over the Yankees in a week.

Mets 9, Padres 3: Michael Conforto homered twice and had a career-high four RBI. Three of those RBI came in the Mets’ seven-run first inning as New York jumped all over Jhoulys Chacin. The Mets romped, but this play by Padres catcher Austin Hedges may have been the highlight:

Angels 4, Rays 0: Matt Shoemaker tossed shutout ball into the seventh. He had a 2-0 lead six pitches into the game, as Cameron Maybin and Mike Trout went deep in the first inning. The Angels have won seven of nine.

Blue Jays 4, Brewers 3: The Jays had a 4-0 lead,thanks in part to a Kendrys Morales homer. Milwaukee pulled close, however, chasing Jays starter Joe Biagini with three runs in the fifth inning. The Jays pen then shut things down with four Toronto relievers combining to shut out the Brewers over the final four and two-thirds.

Astros 6, Tigers 2: Brian McCann is on the concussion DL, but Juan Centeno, making his big league debut, homered in his place last night. Lance McCullers allowed a one hit in five shutout innings to extend his scoreless innings streak to 22. He had to leave early, though, as he was less than efficient. Jordan Zimmermann allowed four runs — only two of them earned — on five hits while pitching into the seventh. It was his birthday. Maybe the Tigers defense will get him something better today to make up for it.

Diamondbacks 5, White Sox 4J.J. Hoover came into the game with one out and the bases loaded in the eighth inning, the Dbacks clinging to a one-run lead. Then he struck out Kevan Smith and Yolmer Sanchez to preserve that lead and, ultimately, the win. That wasn’t even his best performance of the day, however. Earlier he won a dang cow milking contest:

 

He’s from Western Pennsylvania so, you know.

Dodgers 2, Cardinals 1: Clayton Kershaw pitched well enough to win — he went nine innings, striking out 10 and allowing only one run on a ninth inning wild pitch — but so too did Lance Lynn who went eight innings, striking out ten and allowing only one run on a first inning homer. So this one went to extras. It ended in the 13th when Jonathan Broxton issued a two-out walk to Kiké Hernandez and followed it up by allowing a walkoff double to Logan Forsythe.

Marlins 11, Athletics 9: Miami had a five-run lead heading into the bottom of the ninth. The gave up three to Oakland, but that’s it. Justin Bour had four hits including his fourth home run in five games. Giancarlo Stanton and Dee Gordon had three hits each. Every Miami player had at least one by the third inning.

Joe Maddon: “I have a defensive foot fetish.”

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The Cubs’ defense — or lack thereof this year — has been a topic of conversation as it could help explain why the team hasn’t played at the elite level it played at last year.

Manager Joe Maddon tried to go into detail about that but ended up channeling his inner Rex Ryan. Via CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney.

Well then.