Shiver Me Timbers: The Bucs Are in First Place!

To say that my hometown of Pittsburgh is in the grips of Pirates mania is the understatement of the season.

All of a sudden, fans are coming out of the woodwork. The question on everyone’s lips: “How about those Buccos?” As of Wednesday morning, the Pirates are in first place ½ game ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Eighteen years of sub .500 baseball will do that to long suffering Pirates fans. We knew we had finally made it when the word reached us that ESPN will televise the Monday night August 18 game against the Atlanta Braves. And rumor has it that the Pirates will also be ESPN’s Sunday night game August 21 against division rivals Cincinnati.

Sports Illustrated and the veritable New York Times will send reporters to PNC Park this Saturday to cover the Pirates-St. Louis Cardinals’ game that may have the division lead at stake.

Everything the Pirates have touched this year has turned to gold. Consider Mike “Fort” McKenry, the ninth starting catcher the Pirates have employed this year. Picked up from the Boston Red Sox AAA Pawtucket franchise, McKenry has been solid defensively and clutch at the plate.

Or how about Alex Presley called up from Indianapolis when regular left fielder Jose Tabata went on the disabled list? As of Tuesday, Presley is hitting .352 from the lead off position and supplying plenty of speed on the bases.

Then there’s shortstop Chase d’Arnaud replacing the injured Ronnie Cedeno. d’Arnaud, a Pepperdine University star, is an upgrade from the erratic Cedeno.

Jeff Karstens defines good pitching. He throws strikes (two of every three pitches), mixes his speeds, works fast (about eight seconds in between pitches) and to use the old adage in reference to Mike Mussina and Tom Glavine, “makes a living on the black.”

Baseball’s greatest underpublicized story is second baseman Neil Walker, “Mr. Pittsburgh,” born and raised in the ‘Burg and a local high school hero. Until last year, Walker lived at home with his mother and father. Walker, who has hit in 13 straight games, is the major league leader in RBIs for second basemen with 62, three more than the New York Yankees Robinson Cano.

I hope you have noticed the absence of multimillion dollar free agents. The Pirates are a refreshing team of young, eager players who think they can win and are encouraged by their charismatic manager Clint Hurdle to go all out.

But there’s a rub. Should Hurdle continue to play McKenry, Presley and d’Arnaud, with whom he has done nothing but win, or give the positions back to the original starters, Ryan Doumit/Chris Snyder, Tabata and Cedeno? Another looming conflict: the injured, demoted Pedro Alvarez is apparently ready to return from Indianapolis. Alvarez was a total bust during the first three months of the season: two home runs, 10 RBIs and a .208 average that saw him strike out once in every three at bats. Insiders think Hurdle may have a low opinion of Alvarez’s work ethic and conditioning. If true, Hurdle’s decision would be easier.

My sense is that Hurdle has to stay with his winning hand. Any disruption in the starting lineup would be risky. If one of the new starters falters, then replace them. Until then, stand pat. That strategy also means no trades at the deadline.

By the way, I offer you this this interesting side bar. In anticipation of my 50th high school reunion, my alma mater asked for my post-graduation biography. Here’s how I ended my essay. I wrote: “If you’re in Pittsburgh, give me a call. I can show you around and get you good seats to any Pirates game. Don’t laugh. In 2011, a Pirates game will be a tough ticket. This is the year the Pirates end their 18-year-long record of losing baseball.”

I was only partly right. The Pirates are a tough ticket—so tough that I couldn’t help you should you visit. Most of the remaining home games are sold out.

As for finishing with a winning season, as every manager likes to say, there’s a lot of baseball left to play. 

4 Replies to “Shiver Me Timbers: The Bucs Are in First Place!”

  1. I went there to see a series a for a series a few years ago and the fanbase was just begging for The Pirates to turn it around. I am not a Pirate fan but I am happy to see that they are finally contending.

  2. I know the Pirates’ performance provides my amico with great satisfaction, but recall the admonition: sic transit gloria mundi.
    While they are no longer the Pittsburgh “Patsies” of my youth, they have developed into a cohesive ballclub precisely because of the absence of “stars” on the team. But for how long?
    Professional sports is, by design, a business, not a sport, so it shan’t be long before this team of virtually unknowns will become…known, and the requisite price will be demanded for their services. At that point, and no one knows when that will be, this marvelous example of what a team is supposed to do on the field will slip into the main currents of the sport, and money, not teamwork, will be the name of the game. Therefore, Giuseppe, enjoy them while you can.

  3. it all starts with great pitching…i just question whether the young bucs can continue to play above .500 ball in late August/September when things heat up. brewers and cardinals will likely improve at the deadline, i just don’t think pittsburgh has enough offense to stay ahead for the rest of the year. The reds are dangerous too , i think the pirates pitching comes down to earth before long. Nice season, good things to look forward to, but you’re playing above you’re head

  4. Will the Pirates win the division? Probably not. However, the fact that we’re even discussing the possibility in late July is great for their long suffering fans. Also, because it’s such a surprise, I think it’s great for baseball.

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