Monday, October 14, 2013

Pirates magical campaign: Part two

--Unlike 1992, when I practically needed a therapist to get me through the Pirates' Game 7 loss in the NLCS, I was over Pittsburgh's loss in the NLDS fairly quickly. I mean, I was disappointed for a night (when you spend a whole day "knowing" your team is going to win, it's a little hard to deal with when it doesn't happen), but, like a lot of Pirates fans who walked through the desert of losing baseball for two decades , it was hard to feel too disappointed. What the team gave its faithful this year was something that, quite honestly, I never thought I'd see again. And that's not hyperbole, it's a fact. I've been talking about the disparity between large and small market baseball teams for a reason, and that's because it's a big deal. It was a big enough deal that, if it hadn't been for the front office sticking to a true rebuilding plan and doing so aggressively, we may have never had a Game 5 loss to be sad about. Much kudos goes to majority owner Bob Nutting, team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington for the work they did over the past six seasons and the slings and arrows they had to put up with from the fans and media. I'm not saying a lot of those slings and arrows weren't justified (many were), but whatever wrongs there were in previous seasons, they were mostly righted once the current regime took over. It would have been easy to deviate from the plan in the face of public outrage, but there was never going to be a true championship-level baseball team in Pittsburgh again unless a true small market plan was adhered to. That's exactly what happened, and now the Pirates have an organization, from top to bottom, that's on the rise and probably won't be enduring much public outrage anytime soon.

--If the postseason taught me anything it's the importance of winning a division. Prior to 2012, when there was only one wild card team per league, if a team had a fairly sizable lead in the WC standings coming down the stretch, that team's manager could organize his pitching staff and have it aligned just the way he wanted it for the LDS. But after an extra team was added to the wild card mix in each league, which created a one game playoff, that changed the strategy substantially. Instead of one wild card team having its ace ready for Game 1 of an LDS, two wild card combatants were now forced to use their aces in the "single elimination game"--and rightfully so. If you don't win the wild card game, it won't matter how your pitching staff is aligned. Because the Cardinals won the National League Central over Pittsburgh, they had time to set their starting rotation for the NLDS, meaning ace Adam Wainwright got the nod in Game 1 and Game 5, while Pittsburgh was forced to use ace Francisco Liriano in the Wild Card round, which meant he was only available for Game 3 of the NLDS. Wainwright was masterful in Game 1, shutting the Pirates down in a 9-1 victory. Six days later, with the series tied at two games a piece, Pittsburgh was forced to choose between A.J. Burnett, an outstanding veteran pitcher but with terrible numbers at Busch Stadium, and rookie Gerrit Cole who was awesome down the stretch--including in the Pirates 7-1 victory in Game 2--but only had four months of major league experience. Cole got the nod and did a decent enough job in Game 5, only yielding three runs in five innings, but Wainwright is an ace for a reason, and he shut the Pirates hitters down, again, in a 6-1 complete came series clinching victory. Had Pittsburgh been able to outlast the Cardinals for the division title, the reverse would have happened and Wainwright would have been forced to pitch the Wild Card game, while Liriano would have pitched Games 1 and 5. Lance Lynn, who the Pirates had great success against in the regular season, only had to pitch one game of the NLDS, and it was the only game in which the Pirates batters had great success. Had Lynn been forced to pitch two games, the outcome could have been different. While it sucked for the Pirates purposes, kudos to MLB for strengthening the importance of winning a division.

--"Can the Pirates win again next season?" has been asked countless times since Wednesday. While it's certainly impossible to predict, I see no reason why they can't win again. Will they make the playoffs? Obviously, that's also impossible to predict. I do know one thing, though, Pittsburgh has a legitimate core group of guys on the roster. Like the Penguins in the NHL, the key for continued success is a core group of players. Heading into 2014, the Pirates will have Andrew McCutchen, the current favorite for NL MVP, Pedro Alvarez, the NL co-leader in home runs with 36, who added another three during the playoffs, Starling Marte, coming off his first full major league season, second baseman Neil Walker, catcher Russell Martin, and a pitching staff that will be deep and talented, regardless of what happens with the free agent Burnett. Like the Penguins have done each offseason since becoming true contenders, the Pirates face the prospects of losing several key role players this season, especially veteran right fielder Marlon Byrd, who they acquired in late August. But Pittsburgh still had a successful team prior to Byrd's arrival, and to me, that's why I'm so optimistic for the future. There will always be the Marlon Byrds of the world available at the trade deadline. The key for a gm is to find the right ones and pay the right price. Huntington did that with Byrd, and man was he exceptional. However, without that key core group of players, Byrd wouldn't have been nearly as valuable because he would have been a 36 year old outfielder on a team going nowhere. Right now, the prospects of Pittsburgh winning 94 games again seems rather daunting, but if the players are in place, 94 wins is more than possible, because that's what good baseball teams do.

--I was predicting all summer that the Pirates would kind of bring history back around again and duplicate what the Penguins did in 2008 by losing to a Detroit team in the championship round. Five years ago, the Penguins lost the Stanley Cup Finals to the Red Wings in six games, and I was hoping the Pirates would at least make it as far as the World Series this year before losing to the Tigers. Turns out I was still kind of right. The Red Wings were the class of the NHL back in 2008, winners of the Stanley Cup in '97, '98 and '02 and showed Pittsburgh's young hockey team what championship success looked like, by winning the Cup again at the old Civic Arena. The Cardinals have been the gold standard in the majors for many years, capturing eight division titles since 2000, appearing in three World Series since '04 and winning two since '06. The Pirates might have had St. Louis on the ropes after Game 3, but the Cardinals simply never blinked, and instead of wilting in the face of adversity, they shut Pittsburgh down over the final two games to advance to the NLCS. It's rare for a young team like the Pirates that isn't used to playing in the postseason to have a very successful run in its first year. The young and inexperienced Buccos may have been taught a valuable lesson by a St. Louis team that knows what it takes to win on baseball's biggest stage. It's a lesson that could pay dividends sooner rather than later--the '09 Pens came back and won the Stanley Cup by defeating Detroit in seven games.

--After Wednesday night's 6-1 loss in St. Louis, the Pirates have now scored a total of four runs in their last five games in which they had a chance to clinch a series, dating back to Game 6 of the 1991 NLCS--pretty interesting.

--Along those same lines, the Pirates' main weakness during the regular season was an offense that struggled with scoring runs and driving in runs with men in scoring position, and in the postseason, that caught up with them. Regardless of the sport, once the postseason rolls around, a team's weaknesses during the regular season will probably be exposed. I remember how awesome the 2001 Steelers were, as they rolled to a 13-3 regular season record and had the number one seed in the playoffs. But perhaps lost in the euphoria of such a great season was the team's deficiencies in special teams where Pittsburgh's unit gave up several kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns. Sure enough, in the divisional round against Baltimore, the Steelers gave up a punt return for a touchdown that made the game closer than it should have been. And then in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots scored three touchdowns, but two of them were on special teams plays--a punt return for a TD and a blocked field goal that was returned for a TD--and this proved to be the difference in a 24-17 loss.......I don't necessarily think the Pirates are a horrible hitting team. I just think their preparation and approach to hitting can be improved. During the course of the latter part of the season, after Byrd and first baseman Justin Morneau were acquired for the stretch run, coaches and media types would go on and on about the two veterans and their "professional" approach to hitting. Maybe a more professional approach is what the Pirates young hitters need to take that next step--let's hope they learned a thing or two from the  two veteran rent-a-players, if their time in Pittsburgh was as brief as I suspect it might be.

--I can't tell you how excited I am about the young pitcher Cole, who was drafted number one overall in the 2011 baseball draft. Cole was fairly consistent all year long, once being called up in June, but down the stretch, after a bit of a tweak with his delivery, he was simply dominant. For as hard as he throws, many wondered why he didn't get that many strikeouts, but whatever change that was made to his delivery in early September (I'm no pitching coach) made all the difference, as Cole's K's picked up greatly. When Cole got the nod for Game 5, I didn't bat an eye because I think the kid is the real deal, and he might be something the Pirates haven't had in my lifetime, and maybe ever, an ace. And I'm not talking about an ace of the staff (every team has an "ace"), I'm talking about an ace of baseball, on par with a Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, etc., etc. If you ask any Pirates expert who the greatest pitchers are in team history, they'll rattle off a list, but most of the players on the list would be from between WWI and WWII. Over the past 40 years, other than Steve Blass, Doug Drabek and John Smiley, it's hard to find a Pirates starting pitcher that was even all-star caliber. Cole, with his 100 mph fastball, has a chance to be something special, and the kind of pitcher fans will actually come out to see.

That's all I have for now. The Pirates magical run was so awesome, I'm sure I'll be writing much more about it in the near future.

Let's Go Bucs!

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