Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Pirates making headlines on the field

By Jerry Crasnick |

July 31, 2013

Andrew McCutchen Pirates
Andrew McCutchen saved two runs in Game 1, then hit a two-run homer in Game 2. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

PITTSBURGH -- Baseball has too much on its plate these days to focus exclusively on the exploits of an inspirational team in Pittsburgh. The trade deadline is coming to a head Wednesday. Brian Wilson -- aka “The Beard” -- is about to pitch his way to Chavez Ravine. And there’s still the little matter of that Biogenesis situation left to resolve. According to reports, multiple PED offenders are lining up to accept their suspensions and take a baseball sabbatical for the foreseeable future. They’re the luncheon meat in the middle of aRyan Braun/Alex Rodriguez contrition sandwich. 

Thank goodness for feel-good stories. While Nelson CruzEverth Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta prepare to hoist the white flag, the Buccos remain insistent on waving the Jolly Roger. 
[+] EnlargePittsburgh Pirates fans
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPirates fans are seeing something they've been waiting 21 years for.

If the Pittsburgh Pirates keep playing this well, they just might outgrow the adjective “pesky.” Early Tuesday evening, Alex Presley hit a ricochet job off reliever Kevin Siegrist’s glove in the 11th inning to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 victory in the opening game of a doubleheader with the St. Louis Cardinals. After grabbing a sandwich and a beverage and changing their jerseys, the Pirates came out and beat St. Louis again, 6-0, to stretch their lead over the Cardinals to 1½ games in the National League Central. 

The crowd had thinned considerably by the time Jeanmar Gomez retired David Freese on a routine grounder to shortstop for the final out of the second game. But “Let’s Go Bucs” chants still reverberated through the stands, as a reminder that Pittsburgh fans have overcome their reticence and embraced their team entering its dog day push for the playoffs. 

Consider: In their past 17 dates at PNC Park, the Pirates have averaged 33,764 fans. The crowd of 32,084 for the opener of the St. Louis series set a record for a Monday night at PNC. 

“We’ve had fans come in drove on the weekends,” second baseman Neil Walker said. “But it’s something else for them to come out for a doubleheader at 4 o’clock on a workday. We’ve always seen what it’s like in places like San Francisco and Philadelphia. It can really be imposing when you go on the road and the place is packed. Now we have that here.” 
[+] EnlargePittsburgh Pirates
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPirates players have already celebrated more wins than recent Pirates teams have notched in entire seasons.

The Pirates haven’t been in first place this late in the season since they won their most recent division title in 1992. They’re 34-18 at PNC and 29-17 versus the National League Central this year. They win whenPedro Alvarez hits home runs, and when Andrew McCutchen makes sliding catches, hits home runs and gracefully and breathtakingly covers the 270 feet from first base to home plate on doubles in the gap. 

Most of all, the Pirates win when they pitch well -- which is most of the time. In the first three games of a five-game series against St. Louis, the Pirates have outscored the Cardinals 17-3. Manager Mike Matheny’s lineup is batting .155 (16-for-103) with two extra-base hits thus far in the series. 

If it’s not Francisco Liriano dealing for the Pirates, it’sA.J. Burnett or Jeff Locke or (feel free to take a break and consult Brandon Cumpton

When Tuesday’s makeup game created the need for an emergency starter, the Pirates recalled Cumpton, a former ninth-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech, from their Triple-A farm club in Indianapolis. He throttled the Cardinals on three hits over seven innings to earn his first major league victory. 

Cumpton collaborated with catcher Tony Sanchez, whose main claim to fame to this point in his career was going No. 4 overall in the 2009 draft -- 21 spots ahead of a New Jersey high school outfielder named Mike Trout. Sanchez, a Miami native and Boston College product, has been a disappointment in the minor leagues and admittedly wondered when this day would ever come. He appeared for two games as Pittsburgh’s designated hitter in June, but made his first career start behind the plate against the Cardinals on Tuesday. 

“I’m coming out of the bullpen and I have people fist-bumping me and saying, ‘We love you Tony,’” Sanchez said. “For the last few days, everybody back home in Miami kept telling me, ‘This is the biggest series the Pirates have played in the last 20 years.’ I’ve got my uncle telling me, ‘It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere there.’ Like I need that. 

“When I came out of the dugout, it was nerve-wracking, overwhelming, all of those things. You feel like all the eyes are on you, because I’m the guy who has struggled the most and this has been such a long road for me. It doesn’t help that you read Twitter and you know people are anticipating your first start.” 

By the end of the night, when Sanchez was hugging manager Clint Hurdle and coach Jeff Banister in celebration of the shutout, he got borderline misty. “I didn’t even care that I went 0-for-3,” he said. 

The Pirates will get back to the grind Wednesday night when Locke takes on Adam Wainwright. At some point in the day, they can expect GM Neal Huntington to emerge from his bunker with a trade to report or a “stand pat” proclamation. Will Huntington add a reliever to take some of the burden off a bullpen that has logged the sixth heaviest workload in the majors, or a bat to supplement an offense that’s 11th in the NL in runs scored? The Pirates have been linked off and on with the likes of Houston pitcher Bud Norrisand Chicago outfielder Alex Rios. But you have to wonder how motivated Huntington is at this point to trifle with what his team has going. 

Whatever moves he does or doesn’t make, the fans in Pittsburgh are finding it progressively harder to remain disengaged -- recent late-season fades notwithstanding. 

“I just tell them to keep coming out,” said Hurdle, who celebrated his 56th birthday Tuesday. “We love the support. We love the colors. We love the flags. We love the chants.”

Most of all the Pirates love the winning. That feeling is becoming contagious in Pittsburgh.

North Shore slice of baseball heaven

Pirates fans and players celebrate after Alex Presley drove in the winning run during the 11th inning against the Cardinals on Tuesday, July 30, 2013, at PNC Park.
About Joe Starkey
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Freelance Columnist Joe Starkey can be reached via e-mail or at 412-320-7848

By Joe Starkey 
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Published: Tuesday, July 30, 2013, 11:15 p.m.

Baseball paradise.
I heard somebody describe PNC Park that way Tuesday. Who could argue?
Outside the park on a sky-blue, 76-degree afternoon, the North Shore bustled like Pittsburgh's version of Wrigleyville, only with a winning team to root for.
Bars filled. Traffic slowed. Outdoor musicians played. Trade rumors flew.
“Baseball the way it was meant to be,” said Kevin Williams, an accountant from Irwin and one of many, no doubt, who cut work early.
How times have changed. Fans lined the Clemente Bridge not to contemplate a jump but to reach the ballpark in time for the 4:08 p.m. start of an old-school doubleheader between the Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals, teams separated by a half-game atop the National League Central.
Inside, the place was turbo-charged — and that was just in manager Clint Hurdle's office. As I was listening to the pregame radio show, Hurdle's media briefing was interrupted by his phone belting out the Allman Brothers' “Midnight Rider.”
“Let me turn this off,” Hurdle said. “It's my (56th) birthday. I've been getting a lot of calls.”
Allman Brothers ring tone?
“Fifty-six, I'm still bringing it, boy,” Hurdle said.
Thirty thousand-plus were bringing it, too. And they weren't here for bobbleheads, pierogi races or fireworks. Just high-quality, deeply intense baseball, the nail-biting kind of which pennant races are made.
They went nuts when Andrew McCutchen made a diving catch off Carlos Beltran in the first inning and doubled up Matt Holliday at first.
They clapped rhythmically whenever A.J. Burnett got two strikes on a batter and roared with delight when Burnett cussed out home-plate umpire Eric Cooper after a blown call.
They exploded when Clint Barmes backhanded a Holliday smash to start a game-saving double play in the ninth then again in the 11th when Alex Presley drove in the winning run on a fortuitous grounder that bounced off pitcher Kevin Siegrist. The Pirates were in first place.
“Even in (the clubhouse), you could hear them into every pitch,” Burnett said later.
This ballpark has always been beautiful, of course, but it has lived a somewhat lonely existence, nothing like its creators imagined.
Remember what then-governor Tom Ridge said at the groundbreaking?
“You will see the new stars of tomorrow right here at PNC Park.”
Yeah, well, tomorrow took a long time. But now look: PNC Park was Cinderella all dressed up for the ball last night, just as it had been the night before.
It has never looked so good.
By 3 p.m., long lines had formed around the park. By 5, it was packed from the standing-room-only rotundas in left field to the mini enclave far into foul territory in right, just above the “Budweiser Bowtie” sign.
Near the Willie Stargell statue, Karen Seibert's eyes welled. She remembered when baseball was king in Pittsburgh. Born in 1946 near Connellsville, she and her parents would listen to Bob Prince call games.
Seibert traveled from Seminole, Fla., with her husband for the series. She usually attends one per year. She hadn't felt a vibe like this in decades.
“When I was growing up, no matter what else was going on in our lives, it was always, ‘What are the Pirates doing tonight?' ” Seibert said. “I was back in Connellsville today, and it's like that again. I have goose bumps just being here. This is the way it used to be.”
Nobody has to tell Hurdle that. He is keenly aware of the town's rich baseball history.
“We're making every effort to make it a great baseball town again,” he said.
One last person I spotted outside the ballpark: ex-Penguins winger Matt Cooke, enjoying his last week in Pittsburgh. The movers arrive Saturday. He's off to Minnesota.
Cooke was with his 9-year-old son, Jackson, who was dressed in a Neil Walker jersey. The Walkers and Cookes are neighbors, which means Jackson gets to play a game of backyard catch with Neil every once in a while.
Cooke smiled as he told that story. His son was eager to get into the game. Cooke nodded toward him and said, “This is his sport.”
Seems like it's everybody's sport at the moment.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him

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Pirates drill Cardinals 6-0 to sweep doubleheader

By WILL GRAVES (AP Sports Writer)
July 31, 2013

PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 30:  Brandon Cumpton #58 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches in the first inning against the St. Louis Cardinals during game two of a doubleheader on July 30, 2013 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Brandon Cumpton picks up his first career win as the Pirates complete their first double-header sweep of the Cardinals since 1978. (Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Forget about the best record in baseball, the lead in the NL Central and the buzz of a city giddily envisioning the end of two decades of despair.
After a euphoric doubleheader sweep of reeling St. Louis on Tuesday that propelled them to the top of the division, the Pittsburgh Pirates - yes, the Pirates - are ready to get greedy.
''We want more,'' manager Clint Hurdle said.
Keep pitching like this, and that shouldn't be a problem.
Three hours after Alex Presley's grounder caromed off the glove of St. Louis reliever Kevin Siegrist and rolled into shallow left field to give the Pirates a taut 2-1, 11-inning victory in the opener, the Pirates breezed to a 6-0 victory in the second game behind rookie starter Brandon Cumpton.
Working with usual Triple-A battery mate Tony Sanchez - making his major league debut - Cumpton (1-1) scattered three hits over seven innings to extend the Cardinals' losing streak to a season-high six straight games.
''Pitching inside has been my thing all year,'' Cumpton said. ''I didn't want to get away from it. I wanted to force the issue.''
All it did was compound the issues for St. Louis, which has scored all of five runs in the last 56 innings. Even worse, catcher Yadier Molina is likely headed to the disabled list after leaving in the top of the fourth inning of the second game with a sprained right knee.
The knee has been bothering the All-Star for weeks. An MRI earlier this month revealed inflammation. After trying to play through it, Molina believes the better course of action is some rest so he can be ready for the stretch drive.
''I'm a guy who wants to be on the field playing,'' Molina said. ''But right now I need time.''
The injury is the latest setback for a team that appeared the class of the majors at the All-Star break but now finds itself 1 1/2 games behind the resilient Pirates. The sweep pushed Pittsburgh to a season-high 22 games over .500 (64-42). The last time their record was this gaudy was 1992, which also happens to be the last time the beleaguered franchise reached the postseason.
It's a destination that appears well within the Pirates' reach, even if they opt to keep their wallets closed at Wednesday's trading deadline. A pitching staff that keeps topping itself has allowed the Pirates to overcome a series of injuries.
Cumpton didn't even spend any time with the big league club during spring training. On Tuesday he found himself polishing off arguably the biggest day at PNC Park since it opened in 2001.
''Coming out of spring, (Cumpton) was 13th on our starting pitching depth chart,'' Hurdle said. ''You trust the people that are working with the players and they've been confident about Brandon's improvement.''
It's a rise that took a little while longer than St. Louis rookie Tyler Lyons (2-4), though the right-hander has cooled off since winning his first two starts in spectacular fashion earlier this year.
Lyons gave up four runs, three earned, in six innings. He struck out five and walked one but received no help from a reeling offense and some sloppy play in the field.
A couple hours after Presley's slapper off Siegrist (0-1) won the opener, the fortuitous bounces kept on coming. The Pirates took a 1-0 lead in the second when a rare passed ball by Molina let Jose Tabata sprint across the plate. Molina was done for the night in the top of the fourth when the right knee pain he's been battling for the better part of a month flared up again. He was replaced by Rob Johnson.
The absence of their leader further weakened the Cardinals, and things quickly fell apart.
While Cumpton kept the NL's top offense in check, Pittsburgh poured it on with a little help from St. Louis left fielder Matt Holliday. The Pirates took a 2-0 lead on Jordy Mercer's RBI single before McCutchen stepped in. He drilled Lyons' pitch deep to left but Holliday appeared ready to track it down at the wall. Instead, the ball popped off the heel of Holliday's glove and into the stands.
Lyons placed both hands on his head in shock while the packed bleachers let Holliday have it. Holliday's night didn't get any better an inning later when he overran Josh Harrison's flyball to the wall, allowing Harrison to make it all the way to third.
''It's a hard game,'' St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. ''Our guys have been making a lot of good plays. Every once in a while there's tough ones you don't make.''
Harrison never made it home, but by then Cumpton had all the backing he would require.
Cumpton needed just 87 pitches to get 21 outs. He received a loud ovation as he headed to the dugout, the latest in a series of unheralded Pirates pitchers to rise from obscurity and help propel the franchise into the midst of a pennant race.
The staff takes its cue from ace A.J. Burnett, who worked seven emotional innings in the opener. Burnett struck out nine and walked three while allowing one run on three hits. He was long gone, however, by the time Presley stepped in with Martin on in the 11th.
''It's a battle, it's fun,'' Burnett said. ''Let's roll from here. Let's keep going.''
NOTES: The series continues on Thursday. Adam Wainright (13-6, 2.51 ERA) starts for the Cardinals against Jeff Locke (9-3, 2.15) ... St. Louis sent struggling reliever Marc Rzepczynski to Cleveland on Tuesday in exchange for minor league infielder Juan Herrera. Rzepczynski had a 7.84 ERA in 10 1-3 innings this season with the Cardinals ... Pirates 2009 first-round pick Tony Sanchez went 0 for 3 with an RBI in his first major league start at catcher.

Pirates outlast Cardinals 2-1 in 11 innings

By WILL GRAVES (AP Sports Writer)

July 30, 2013

A.J. Burnett
A.J. Burnett’s super and emotional start paved the way for an important win. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle firmly believes the city can become a baseball town once again.
At the rate his team is going, it might be by the end of the week.
Alex Presley hit a game-ending single with two outs in the 11th inning, lifting the Pirates to a 2-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in the opener of a doubleheader on Tuesday.
Presley hit a sharp bouncer that deflected off the glove of pitcher Kevin Siegrist (0-1) and away from shortstop Pete Kozma, who was moving toward second base. Kozma could not recover and the ball rolled into the outfield, allowing Russell Martin to sprint all the way home from second base.
With the win, the Pirates moved into first-place in the NL Central, at least for a few hours.
''It's a battle, it's fun,'' said Pittsburgh starter A.J. Burnett. ''Let's roll from here. Let's keep going.''
The win gave Pittsburgh its second victory in less than 24 hours over the Cardinals, who have lost a season-high five straight. Burnett pitched seven emotionally charged innings, giving up one run on three hits, striking out nine and walking three. Though he has just one victory since May 3, Burnett's performance set the tone and the bullpen followed his lead.
Vin Mazzaro (6-2) picked up the victory after retiring three of the four batters he faced in the 11th.
The Cardinals lead the NL in runs and batting average, but have scored just five runs in their last 47 innings and went 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position in the opener.
''We had some hard-hit balls with runners in scoring position,'' manager Mike Matheny said. ''It just didn't work out.''
St. Louis' best chance came in the 10th when they put runners on the corners with one out. Matt Holliday ripped a grounder that Pittsburgh shortstop Clint Barmes backhanded and turned into Holliday's NL-leading 24th double play of the season.
Lance Lynn was dominant in six innings for the Cardinals, but was long gone by the time Presley came through against Siegrist.
''He was right on, everything he was doing today,'' Matheny said of Lynn. ''If we keep him doing it the rest of the season we're going to win a lot of games.''
The Pirates survived by doing what they've done for most of the first four months of the season, riding another stellar effort from baseball's top pitching staff and getting just enough hitting to win.
Presley's slapper capped a 3-hour, 52-minute marathon that had all the makings of playoff baseball. A packed PNC Park - on a Tuesday afternoon no less - buzzed as Burnett and Lynn matched each other for the better part of two hours.
Burnett received a bit of help with two on and one out in the first when center fielder Andrew McCutchen made a diving grab of a sinking liner by Carlos Beltran. The Gold Glover then hopped to his feet and alertly doubled up Holliday.
Jay struck out swinging leading off the sixth but moved all the way to second when the ball slipped away from Martin, the Pirates' catcher, and rolled toward the backstop. Martin strolled to pick up the ball, thinking it was foul, allowing Jay to reach second base.
Martin, Burnett and Hurdle began an animated discussion with home plate umpire Eric Cooper that spilled over into Holliday's at-bat. At one point Cooper came out from behind the plate and walked toward Burnett, pointing at the pitcher and yelling.
The call, however, seemed only to fire up Burnett. The fiery ace struck out Holliday, got Beltran to fly out to left and knocked down a grounder by Mike Adams before emphatically firing to first to beat the lumbering Adams to the bag to get out of the inning.
The histrionics were even louder in the seventh when Burnett struck out pinch-hitter Allen Craig with the 113th and final pitch of his day. Burnett let loose an elaborate fist-pump before making his way to the dugout following arguably his sharpest outing of the season.
Lynn was just as spectacular. He needed to be on a day when he didn't receive the kind of backing that allowed him to enter the game with 12 victories, the second-highest total in the National League.
Pittsburgh scratched across a run in the first when Alvarez doubled home McCutchen, but the Pirates didn't get a runner to third over Lynn's final five innings. He allowed one run on three hits, striking out seven and walking just two.
NOTES: Cardinals CF Jon Jay's team record for consecutive errorless games ended at 245 when he misplayed a single by Pittsburgh's Starling Marte in the fifth inning that allowed Marte to advance to second. Jay's previous error came on Aug. 24, 2011 ... St. Louis sent struggling reliever Marc Rzepczynski to Cleveland on Tuesday in exchange for minor league infielder Juan Herrera. Rzepczynski had a 7.84 ERA in 10 1-3 innings this season with the Cardinals ... Pirates 2009 first-round pick Tony Sanchez will get his first big-league start at catcher in the nightcap.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Liriano, Pirates crush Cardinals 9-2

By WILL GRAVES (AP Sports Writer) 

July 29, 2013

Pedro Alvarez (24) hits a three-run home run off St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jake Westbrook (35) during the first inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Monday, July 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Clint Hurdle grabbed the brim of his cap and ducked his head. When pressed about what pleased him the most about Pittsburgh's 9-2 win over St. Louis on Monday, a romp that propelled the resilient Pirates within a half-game of the NL Central lead, the manager thought for a moment and sighed.
''Getting a little picky aren't we?'' he asked with a smile.
Hurdle isn't. Neither is his team as it tries to shrug off two decades of misery and mediocrity.
Francisco Liriano allowed one run over seven dominant innings, Pedro Alvarez hit his NL-leading 27th home run and the Pirates kicked off a pivotal series by sending the Cardinals to their season-high fourth straight loss.
Liriano (11-4) continued his midcareer renaissance by striking out eight and walking just two to win his fifth consecutive start.
''It's been a good run for him being able to watch, and that's pretty much what I've been doing,'' Pittsburgh center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. ''I don't get a lot of action when he's on the mound. It makes it a lot easier for the defense.''
Having some help from an underachieving offense helps. The Pirates came in hitting just .221 with runners in scoring position, the worst mark in baseball. Clint Barmes smacked two doubles and drove in two runs and McCutchen added two hits as Pittsburgh went 5 for 13 with runners on second or third to continue its mastery over St. Louis starter Jake Westbrook.
The veteran right-hander fell to 1-8 against Pittsburgh in his otherwise solid resume. The Pirates touched Westbrook (7-5) for four runs in the first inning, capped by Alvarez's three-run homer into the first row of seats in right field.
''It was a battle from pitch 1 -- and it showed early on,'' Westbrook said. ''It's not really how you draw it up with a walk and a hit batsmen and a single and a homer. Put us in a bad spot against a good team and against a guy who's throwing the ball really well.''
Hurdle stressed the need to not place too much focus on a late-July series, pointing out two more months remain after the five-game set wraps up on Thursday.
Maybe, but with the Pirates chasing their first playoff berth in 21 years and a chance to make inroads on the team with the best record in baseball, the game had an electricity typically reserved for early fall in cities far away from the one that hasn't fielded a winner since 1992.
Lower-lever tickets were fetching $100 or more hours before the first pitch, and Liriano did not disappoint the largest Monday-night crowd (32,084) since the park opened.
The left-hander, whose path to stardom veered off track after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2007, had little trouble with the most explosive offense in the majors. He retired the first 10 batters he faced and kept the best-hitting team in the National League on its heels while dropping his ERA to 2.16.
''Frankie can answer,'' Hurdle said. ''He's been in big matchups before.''
So has Westbrook, who still hasn't figured out a way to handle the Pirates. He was touched for four runs in the first inning of his previous start at PNC Park in April. The game was eventually washed out.
The weather couldn't save him this time. Neither could Westbrook's usually solid control. He issued three walks and hit three batters and never appeared comfortable.
''He's going to go out there and give us whatever he's got every time and for whatever reason this team's just given him a tough time and he's had a hard time in this stadium,'' St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said.
Westbrook survived a bases-loaded jam in the second to stay close, but by then Liriano had all the support he would need. His only real mistake came in the sixth, when pinch-hitter Tony Cruz led off with a triple and scored on Carpenter's single up the middle. A strikeout and a double play followed, and the Pirates broke it open in the seventh against relievers Marc Rzepczynski and Fernando Salas.
Garrett Jones started it with Pittsburgh's first sacrifice fly to the outfield since May 27 and Barmes clubbed a two-run double as the Pirates batted around.
Even with its best offensive showing since the All-Star break, Hurdle isn't so sure the Pirates made a statement.
''We're a confident team,'' he said. ''I think we're a team whose confidence isn't built on its last game. It's not shattered by a losing streak. You continue to push through and that's what we've done from Opening Day until now.''
NOTES: Pirates LF Starling Marte did not start after getting a planned day off in favor of Alex Presley, recalled from Triple-A on Monday after C Mike McKenry went onto the disabled list with a sprained knee. Marte entered in the seventh as a pinch hitter and singled. He is hitting just .131 (5 for 38) since July 20 ... The series continues with a doubleheader Tuesday. A.J. Burnett (4-7, 2.96 ERA) faces Lance Lynn (12-5, 3.98 ERA) in the opener with the Cardinals' Tyler Lyons (2-3, 5.51) starting the second game. The Pirates will not name a starter for the second game until Tuesday morning. ... Lynn was originally supposed to start the second game, but Matheny moved him into the matchup against Burnett because he wanted a more experienced pitcher to take on Pittsburgh's ace.

Bernie Bytes: Quick hits on Cards 9-2 loss at Pittsburgh

By Bernie Miklasz
July 29, 2013
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano delivers a pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals during the fourth inning at PNC Park.(Photo: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports)
Instant (sort of) reaction to the Cardinals' embarrassing 9-2 loss to the Pirates on Monday at PNC Field: 
1. Let's pretend that Tony La Russa is still managing the Cardinals, with his trusted capo, Dave Duncan, alongside as the pitching coach. Here's the question: what would be the percentage of probability of TLR and Duncan setting up their rotation in a manner that puts Jake Westbrook in place to to start Game 1 of an important five-game series at Pittsburgh? Here's the answer: ZERO percent. Given that Westbrook breaks out in a rash upon passing through the gates of PNC Park, Don Tony and Papa Dunc would have rearranged the rotation to keep Westbrook safely hidden in a pitcher-protection program _ well beyond the reach of Pirates hitters that go all Roberto Clemente andWillie Stargell on ol' Westie as soon as they make visual contact. 
2. The Cardinals are 5-11 in their last 16 gamesagainst the Pirates. In the 16 games the Cardinals have been outscored 95-53, STL pitchers have a 5.38 ERA, and STL batters are hitting .218 against Pittsburgh pitchers.  
3. The Cardinals are 14-20 this season against teams that currently have a winning record. 
4. On days that he knows he's facing St. Louis,Pedro Alvarez presumably arises at 4:30 a.m. and speeds to the ballpark, knowing that free and easy money awaits him in the form of the best damned in-game batting practice that any MLB hitter could dream of seeing. In the last two seasons against Cardinals pitchers, Alvarez is Ronald Reaganinvading Grenada. Since the start of 2012 Alvarez is 28 for 81 (.346) with 8 homers and 30 RBIs against STL pitching. This includes going 12 for 24 with runners in scoring position, four go-ahead RBIs, and four game-winning RBIs. No other player has more than 13 RBIs against the Cards over the past two seasons. But the Cardinals continue to give Alvarez fat pitches to hit; they're the Daddy soft-tossing the underhand pitches to little Junior in the father-son game. 
5. This is all I have to say about Fernando Salas: at some point, Matheny and The Mohatma will realize that this isn't 2011. The manager will also realize that Salas is especially ineffective against LH batters. Get mad at Salas if you choose; you're directing the frustration at the wrong guy. 
6. The Cardinals are 0-4 on the end-of-the-world road trip. They have scored five runs and batted .169 in the four games. They have struck out 32 times, with five walks. They have hit into four double plays. They have batted .140 in 57 at-bats against LH pitching. They have been outscored 20-5. That is all. 
7. In the first four games of this End of Days road journey Allen CraigDavid Freese,Matt CarpenterCarlos BeltranYadier Molina and Matt Holliday are a combined 12 for 82 (.146) with 20 strikeouts, two walks, and four GIDPs. 
8. Based on the reaction that hammered my Twitter feed Monday night, I assume the Cardinals officially were eliminated from postseason contention. 
9. Hey, I'm just as bad. Now, on a more serious note: the Pirates were supposed to win this game; they had a huge advantage in the starting-pitching matchup. Indeed, Francisco Liriano was excellent. Westbrook hasn't pitched well at PNC. It's just one game. But this one game followed three sleepwalking episodes in Atlanta, so it's magnified. And the irritation is intensified by the Cardinals' recent futility against the Pirates. 
10. C'mon Jason Isringhausen. If you're going to do post-game analysis on Fox Sports Midwest after a game like this, at least bring the fastball. 
11. Remember: when the Cardinals lose a game, it's Matt Holliday's fault. 
12. This was the worst beatdown of a St. Louis team in Pittsburgh since Jerome Bettisrushed for 129 yards and two TDs in the Steelers' 42-6 wipeout of the Rams on Nov. 3, 1996. 
13. Regarding all of this babbling over potential trades... just one question: can Jake Peavy and Cliff Lee hit? 
14. Top of the seventh, game still within reach (well, at least in theory.) Pirates up 4-1. Freese and Shane Robinson draw two-out walks. Two runners on. Two out. Pete Kozma up. ... clearly time for a RH pinch-hitter that can do some damage with one swing. Except the Cardinals don't have anyone who fits that profile, not in a bench role. Kozma flies out. G'night. Oh, well. At least Ty Wigginton is still getting paid. 
15. The Cardinals will homer again, right? 
Looking ahead ...
Doubleheader time Tuesday at PNC.
Lance Lynn vs. A.J. Burnett in Game 1.
Tyler Lyons vs. Jeanmar Gomez in Game 2. 
Matheny switched the pitching order around, moving Lynn to Game 1 after the Pirates opted to start Burnett in Game 1.
Translation: Clint Hurdle is getting into someone's head. 
Gomez has been working in relief since late June, but he had a 2.80 ERA in his eight starts this season. Burnett is 2-1 with a 2.41 ERA in his last three starts against the Cardinals. 
Let's see how the visiting team responds. 
Thanks for reading ... and tolerating. 
Now we move on ... 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Bernie Bytes: Cards vs. Pirates, (almost) all that you need to know

July 29, 2013
Jake Westbrook and Nelson Liriano face off in tonight's series opener.
It is my privilege to present a flurry of notes on the Cardinals @ Pirates series, and I cleaned up a couple of typos from my first run-through. (Having a bad typing day.) 
* I've mentioned this before. Here it is again... one of the most interesting aspects of this matchup is the Cardinals' prowess at hitting with runners in scoring position, and the Pirates' stinginess in pitching with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals lead the majors with a .338 batting average RISP. Pirates pitchers have allowed a .221 average with RISP, and that's the lowest, the best, in the majors. Same with RISP and two outs: Cardinals are first with a .319 average; Pirates have allowed the lowest average (.222) with RISP/2. 
* More RISP: Pirates' hitters have MLB's worst batting average in the majors with runners in scoring position at .222. 
* The Cardinals have lost 10 of their last 15 games played against Pittsburgh. Not counting Interleague contests, here are the best records against the Cardinals since the start of last season: Atlanta 8-1, Pittsburgh 11-9, LA Dodgers 7-7, Philadelphia 7-7. 
* Defense could be a real factor in this series.Broadcasters generally get caught up in praising the Cardinals' defense based on low error count. First of all, official scoring is subjective so beware of putting too much value in raw errors totals. I prefer to cite more advanced statistics that take fielding range into account. Defensive Efficiency, for example. (Simply: what percentage of batted balls in play does a defense convert into outs?) According to the Defensive Efficiency rankings at Baseball Prospectus, the Pirates are No. 1 in the majors at 73.3 percent. The Cardinals are 25th at 70.3 percent.
* More on the defense with Team Runs Saved at Bill James Online: The Pirates are 3rd in the majors with 41 Defensive Runs Saved; the Cardinals are 27th with minus 27 DRS. 
* In case you're wondering, the only "plus" rating defensive positions for the Cardinals this season are catcher, shortstop and right field. The Pirates have "plus" defenders at pitcher, catcher, 2B, 3B, SS, LF and CF.
* The Cardinals are a better baserunning team than the Pirates and this has little to do with stolen bases. Based on Base Running Runs tracked by Baseball Prospectus the Cards are ranked 12th, the Pirates 21st. The Cardinals score well in advancing runners an extra base on hits. 
* The Pirates are a problematic matchup for the Cardinals' procession of RH batters; RH hitters are batting .222 against the Pirates this season. That's the lowest BA allowed to RH batters by a MLB pitching staff. Same with combined onbase+slugging percentage; Pirates pitchers rank No. 1 with an OPS allowed to RH batters (.638.) 
 * Tonight's STL starter, Jake Westbrook, has awful career numbers vs. Pittsburgh. But I throw out the total career stats; it doesn't matter what Westbrook did against hitters that no longer play for the Pirates.
Here, then, is a brief breakdown of current Pirates vs. Westbrook: 
Andrew McCutchen 9 for 25, .360
Pedro Alvarez 12 for 21, .571, with two HRs and two doubles.
Jose Tabata 10 for 24, .417
Neil Walker  6 for 17, .353
Starling Marte 2 for 7
Garrett Jones 5 for 21, .238
Clint Barmes 7 for 24, .292
Russell Martin 0 for 2
Jody Mercer 0 for 3
* Small sample on Westbrook this season: he's 5-0 with a 1.28 ERA at home and 2-4 with a 4.50 ERA on the road. 
* The Cardinals haven't seen much of tonight's starter, Francisco Liriano. Only two current Cardinals have faced Liriano: Matt Holliday is 1 for 2, and backup catcher Rob Johnsonis 1 for 9. 
* Liriano is having an outstanding season. He's 10-4 with a 2.23 ERA. That ERA ranks 4th in the NL (minimum 14 starts.) Liriano ranks 6th among NL starters with a strikeout rate of 9.34 per nine innings. Liriano, a lefthander, has held LH batters to a .116 average; they're 8 for 69 against him.
* Obviously you would expect Cards manager Mike Matheny to stack his lineup with RH bats versus Liriano. But Liriano is tough on them, too. RH hitters are batting .241 with a .317 OBP and .327 slugging percentage against him. 
* This is Liriano's basic approach against RH batters: high percentage of first-pitch fastballs. When he's ahead in the count he turns mostly to his slider and changeup. When he's behind in the count, he goes with the fastball more but isn't predictable; he'll mix in many sliders and changes. When Liriano has a two-strike count he uses the fastball only 18 percent of the time and tries to put the batter away with a slider or change. 
(By the way, I'll provide pitching-matchup info for the other four games in this series but will save it for the day of the games.)
* Like most pitchers, Liriano is vulnerable when his fastball ends up down the middle. But RH batters have had success against him (.417 BA) by driving his outside pitches to right field, or right center. Liriano effectively pitches inside against RH batters; that's been a particular weakness for the Cardinals this season. 
* The Pirates are without their closer, Jason Grilli, who has a right forearm strain that is expected to keep him on the DL for four to eight weeks. Mark Melancon, the 2013 All-Star setup man, has moved into the closer's role. He's converted 4 of 5 save opps so far this season. He saved 20 of 25 for Houston in 2011. Melancon has an 0.91 ERA. His preferred pitch is the cutter. Overall Melancon has a dandy swing-miss rate of 30 percent this season. 
* The Pirates' bullpen is strong; perhaps that will change due to Grilli's absence and the shifting roles of their relievers. But the Pirates have two very good LH relievers in Justin Wilsonand Tony Watson and three effective RH setup relievers in Jeanmar GomezBryan Morrisand Vin Mazzano. Pittsburgh is 3rd in MLB with a save percentage of 81 pct. The Pirates are allowing only 18.4 percent of inherited runners to score, the best rate in the majors and one of the best in modern MLB history.
* The lefties, Wilson and Watson, have combined to limit LH batters to 24 hits in 123 at-bats, an average of .195. 
* The Cardinals have received outstanding contributions from rookie pitchers. So have the Pirates. Rookie starter Gerrit Cole, who won't pitch in this series, is 5-4 with a 3.56 ERA. But rookie relievers Wilson and Morris have combined for 10 wins. Wilson has a 2.11 ERA; Morris has a 2.84 ERA. Pirates rookie pitchers are 15-9 this season. 
* The Pirates often struggle offensively. They rank 24th in the majors with 3.86 runs per game, and are 22nd in onbase percentage (.309), 20th in slugging (.389) and have MLB's second-worst strikeout rate. Pirates hitters strike out once every 4.39 plate appearances. (The Cardinals are the fourth-toughest team to strike out.)
* The Pirates depend on the longball more than the Cardinals do. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Pirates have scored 35.6 percent of their runs via the HR; that ranks 13th in MLB. The Cardinals rank 28th with 27.3 percent of the runs coming via the homer.  
* The Pirates have played a lot of close games; 63 have been decided by one or two runs. They're 19-15 in one-run games, 18-11 in two-run games. The Cardinals are 13-10 in one-run games, 10-14 in two-run games. 
* The Pirates are 21-20 in games against teams that currently have a winning record. The Cardinals are 14-19 against those teams and 17-20 against opponents that presently are .500 or better. Starting tonight the Cardinals have 32 games left against teams that have winning records: 14 vs. Pittsburgh, 10 vs. Cincinnati and four each against the LA Dodgers and Atlanta.  
* The Pirates are 44-2 when taking a lead into the 7th inning this season. The Cardinals are 52-6 in those situations. 
* The Pirates have 24 comeback wins; the Cardinals have 18. The Pirates have six walk-off wins; the Cardinals have one. 
* The Pirates have the No. 1 starting-pitching ERA in the majors, 3.24. But three things about that: (A) first, their fielding-independent rotation ERA of 3.75 ranks 8th; the Cardinals' rotation FIP, 3.22, ranks 1st; (B) the Pirates have 50 quality starts and the Cards have 58; (C) Pirates starters rank 14th in the NL for innings pitched; the Cardinals are 5th. That's one of the big questions hanging over the Pirates; will their rotation hold? Only three NL bullpens have thrown more innings than Pittsburgh's. The Pirates need to get more innings from their starters. 
* This series will showcase two of the best defensive catchers in baseball. Pittsburgh'sRussell Martin has thrown out 44.4 percent of stealers this season (20 of 45). Yadier Molinahas thrown out 12 of 29, for 41.3 percent. Martin's catcher ERA is 3.03, best in the majors. Molina is fourth with a 3.20 catcher ERA. Martin has been an excellent addition to the Pirates in 2013.
Martin and Molina have been dealing with sore knees. With backup catcher Michael McKenrybanged up, the Pirates have recalled rookie catcher Tony Sanchez, their No. 12-ranked prospect. 
* This is why the Pirates are presumably shopping for a right fielder: this season, their RFs have combined to bat .228 with 9 homers, 36 RBIs, a .288 OBP and a .362 slugging pct. The Pirates acquired Travis Snyder from Toronto last summer, hoping he'd turn into a fixture in RF. It hasn't happened. He was placed on the DL Sunday. 
I don't think I left out anything.
Thanks for reading ...