Friday, July 08, 2016

Can Pirates follow Penguins' path?

July 7, 2016
Pirates starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow throws in his major league debut during the first inning against the Cardinals on Thursday, July 7, 2016, in St. Louis.(AP)

The Pirates' sudden surge feels Penguins-like in one respect: young energy helping to fuel a dramatic turnaround.
You can feel it. Adam Frazier hustling a single into a double. Chad Kuhl pumping his fist after a tag at the plate. Jameson Taillon blowing a 95 mph fastball past Nelson Cruz. And even Tyler Glasnow showing glimpses of brilliance in an otherwise uneven debut Thursday in St. Louis.
Something's happening here.
Those Penguins made their big move with a six-game winning streak in mid-March. These Pirates won seven in a row before losing the series finale to the Cardinals. They have won 10 of 13 and are thick in the playoff race as the Chicago Cubs arrive for a three-game series before the All-Star break.
Before the Pirates finished their most recent homestand, I asked manager Clint Hurdle about the infusion of minor-league call-ups. I wondered if youthful energy could help his team the way it helped the hockey club.
He made a good point.
“I think young energy is always good to have around. You need to have some skills with it, though,” Hurdle said. “I've had young energy come up and not play very well, and that doesn't help.”
No doubt, the kids need to produce. The Penguins' kids sure did. From Bryan Rust to Matt Murray to Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl, every rookie played a role. Their presence fundamentally changed the chemistry of the team. It feels like something similar is unfolding with Hurdle's club.
Seems like every other game, Robby in the Seats is interviewing the new guy's parents.
So how about we take this to an absurd extreme and play a little game of Match the Rookies?
Let's do the comparables:
• I'll say either Taillon or Glasnow — maybe some combination of the two — has a chance to be the Pirates' version of Murray. That is, a rangy, high-pedigreed stud who plays the most important position and can put the team on his back in a big moment.
• Frazier and Rust are two of a kind — somewhat undersized, 24-year-old spark plugs who are decidedly unafraid of anyone (Clayton Kershaw) or anything (Game 7 against Tampa Bay). When Hurdle and others talk about the “infectious” and “contagious” energy young players provide, these two are the poster boys.
• Steven Brault, who turned in a respectable start against the Cardinals, absolutely is Conor Sheary. Both wear No. 43. Both parlayed fine runs at low-profile sports colleges (Brault at Regis University, Sheary at UMass) into professional careers.
I would expect Brault to return at some point, by the way. His hard stuff had some bite, set off by a good changeup, and resulted in a strikeout rate (five in four innings, including Matt Carpenter twice) that matched his recent rate in Triple-A.
• Kuhl is Kuhnhackl because their names start similarly, and who knows who else might join the fray? Josh Bell is close.
The Pirates-Penguins parallel would really take off if two veteran Pirates studs — Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole — rebound the way Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang did in the second half. The Pirates need both of those guys to live up to their star pedigree.
We'll see. We'll also see how scheduled starts for Francisco Liriano and Jon Niese develop this weekend. The makeup of the rotation could skew younger as we move along.
So for now, the rookie call-ups remain a developing story. A surprising one, too. It doesn't often happen like this, although it happened for Hurdle in the most dramatic fashion imaginable when he managed the Colorado Rockies' miracle run to the World Series in 2007.
“I think we used 10 different pitchers the second half of the season,” Hurdle said. “Had a rookie at shortstop, a rookie closer and two rookies in the rotation. That's really not the way you draw up a trip to the World Series. However, it happened. I'm kinda holding that in my pocket this year, thinking about that common fabric.”
I'm guessing he's not the only one thinking like that.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him

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