The 2011 Pirates were a great first half team. Leading up to the All-Star break they were on fire. Their pre-All Star break thunderstorm heroics last year, however morphed into short wick candles flickering in the dark after a power outage. This year all indicators seem to point to the fact that the Bucs are more prepared both emotionally and physically to make a run at a MLB Central championship or at the very least a NL wildcard slot.
Let’s begin with the manager. Last Sunday at Houston, Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle decided to award his All-Star, all universe center fielder Andrew McCutchen the day off for the final game of the series. The Pirates lost the game 9-5 but it looks as if Mr. Hurdle does not mind losing a few skirmishes as long as he wins the war. The night before he rested his other All-World player relief pitcher Joel Hanrahan.
My point is that Hurdle kills two birds with one stone because he gives the players that have to perform in over 130-140 games per year a needed break and he also establishes and maintains a confidence level with the alternate and “platooned” players. Even though they may be “2nd stringers” he makes sure they understand that they are just as vital as the boys who get most of the press and playing time.
The next thirty games are going to be critical to the chances of the Pirates advancing to postseason play. If the team posts a .500 record the chances will be good; if not, oh well. I can almost guarantee you that down the stretch in 2012, the Pirates will not finish this season curled up in the fetal position.
Any hope of success during this juncture of the season would have been futile a few years ago because the Pirates had no player depth or credible reservoir on the major or minor league level. If primary position players were ineffective or injured there were no adequate replacements because management was always poised to place players who may have been endowed with average or just above average talent on the trading block for immediate financial gain, but boy how things have changed. The Pirates seem to have now become one of the smartest “shopping” teams in MLB.
Since the Neal Huntington era began, Huntington has become the mirror image of TV host Monty Hall or if you want to stay current Wayne Brady. For those of you who may be out of tune or out of touch both of those gentlemen were and one still remains host of the wild and wacky television game show ‘Let’s Make A Deal’. Huntington seems to be more concerned about the standings than the bottom line. His attitude along with Pirates upper management is more on the level of, “ya gotta spend money to make money.”
The Pirates themselves also appear to be a lot more motivated because they really see that management is trying to do all the right things in order to bring a NL Central Division title to the Steel City. See boys and girls a wildcard spot for the Pirates just will not cut the mustard. Why do you ask? First and foremost if the Pirates have to play in for a wildcard spot, they are going to use their best arm, pitcher A.J. Burnett. There is no sense saving him because the loser will be going home anyway. That being said the starter in the wildcard game may miss a turn when the team reaches the divisional round. A day or two of rest is vital when it comes to baseball because it covers three seasons, spring, summer and fall. Exhaustion is and will always be a factor.
The Pirates will never see the kind of talent that existed in the past especially in this small market but as long as they stay diligent in regards to talent and are good stewards of the money that is available to them there is a distinct possibility that the team will remain competitive for years to come.
Bits of Steel: Everyone is now whispering that since the Steelers signed wide receiver Antonio Brown to a multi-year deal, the days that disgruntled star wide-out Mike Wallace remains a Steeler may be clouded at best. Hey Brown inked a long term deal because he amassed over 1000 yards as a receiver and a kick returner. Let me see flash. That is the first time that has been accomplished in the history of the NFL. Maybe someone somewhere overvalued Mike Wallace and undervalued Antonio Brown.
Wallace wants Larry Fitzgerald type of loot. Are you kidding me? Fitzgerald grew up in the Minneapolis area and became a ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings when he was 15 years old. Larry spent hours at Vikings practice watching superstar NFL receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss while he was working as a ball boy. Larry Fitzgerald may not have NFL DNA bloodlines but he can definitely claim “pedigree by association.”
Wallace is just learning how to run good routes. When Fitzgerald starred at Pitt he was regarded as one of the best wide receivers in the history of college football. Mike, take the advice of an old “economically challenged” sports columnist. Take the money and run.
(Aubrey Bruce can be reached at: 412-583-6741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)