Our GM, Walt Jocketty, bet long odds on a revamped rotation bolstered by a breakout Anthony Reyes and a resuscitated Kip Wells, and lost big. He and La Russa doubled down on the health and ability of Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen to rebound from injury-plagued seasons and pick up the heavy run-producing bats of their prime years, and lost again. Unwilling to accept defeat on this bet, our team fielded a "win-now" roster throughout the season's first half that kept the kids in the wings, except when injury demanded fresh arms and legs.
Other times this season, we have seen our guys struck down by fate, almost entirely unaware of the risks they were taking.
Josh Hancock had entirely doused the little voice of his own better judgment when he lost his life. He had been partying, and was heading out for even more partying – he made a simple, fateful decision to "let it ride," and lost. But who knows how many times he had won that bet with fate last year, on his way to the World Series, or in years past, on his way up the ladder to the major leagues? Sometimes, winning fails to teach us anything. And then there's the gajillion-to-one shot that just hit Juan Encarnacion square in the eye. As long as there have been mothers and sons, there have been unheeded warnings about playing with sticks and balls. Over what impossible number of at bats in the history of the major and minor leagues have we played this game in defiance of this nagging caution, without penalty?
Our right fielder, like any other major league player would be who has stood in the on-deck circle, was completely and utterly unprepared for the eye-level liner that struck with such careless malice.
At this point, whoever has their pins in the "Cardinals 2007" voodoo doll has done about all he could. But this team has refused to let these losses dictate how they play the game, and as a result we are watching an exhilarating chase toward yet another possible division crown.
A Perfect Storm
Pittsburgh is fighting against odds on another scale – despite finishing their best month of the season, only five losses separate them from a 15th consecutive losing campaign. And as in years past, the list of things this team is good at is much shorter than it should be.
Pittsburgh's rank among 16 National League teams in runs scored over the past ten years is steadily bad: 9th, 15th, 12th, 9th, 15th, 15th, 7th, 13th, 14th, and then finally reaching bottom this past year, finishing 16th of 16 teams. This is so steadily awful it seems to defy the law of averages. By all rights, shouldn't they have had at least a mild breakout one of these years, even on pure gambler's luck?
The Pirates' pitching staff has been equally woeful over that same span of time: finishing 8th, 6th, 6th, 12th, 15th, 10th, 12th, 13th, 13th, and rebounding back up to 8th place this past year, though most of that strength was in the bullpen, preserving close losses and preventing them from becoming blowouts. This year's staff has the opposite problem, with several strong starts registered early on, but an alarmingly high rate of blown leads by the bullpen.
There's always drama of some sort, though.
Though Pirate fans reside far away from the fishing waters off the coast of Maine, they know the story of the "Perfect Storm" by heart, at least as it pertains to pitching.
Marginally talented pitchers who need help to win games, both in run support and from their defense, get little of either. These pitchers shy away from challenging opposing hitters, nibbling for calls at the edges of the plate. Umpires disdain this sort of cowardice, and the strike zone gets smaller and more capricious. Forced by the enclosing elements to come back inside, these fragile young men reach back for that "something extra" that boosts velocity but robs movement and accuracy, and frays tender ligaments. The pitches come off the hand and more often than not are immediately regretted – can't they put a yo-yo string on the ball one of these days? – but that regret barely has a chance to register before the pitcher's head is snapped around, following the long, trailing arc of the ball as it sails into the troposphere. Another batter comes up, high-fives his teammate upon the completion of his lap, and then digs into the box. Now the pitcher has no quarter, no safe harbor to guide his pitch into. His next three-ball count finds him afloat, with no sand left in his gut, and the slow parade of walks begins, finishing with a slow walk of his own back to the dugout at his manager's request.
This year, though, the Pirates get to watch all this from the sidelines, as Cardinal starters such as Anthony Reyes and Kip Wells (combined 8-28 record with 29 home runs allowed) act out the drama three times a week. It should be said that Wells, a former Pirate, didn't need to be taught the lines of this tragedy – he learned the role perfectly in his four-plus years in Pittsburgh. In fact, his 2005 performance, in which he lost 18 games despite barely allowing a hit per inning, would have been award-winning if awards were given out for this sort of thing.
NO MORE FREE PASSES
Pirate skipper Jim Tracy and Jim Colburn, his long-time pitching coach, knew they had quite a bit of work on their hands upon arriving in 2006. They immediately made a pointed effort to cut down the walks given out by their staff – and, failing that, have cut the worst-offending pitchers out of their plans.
Thus exited Wells (4 BBs per 9 innings pitched as a Pirate), and Oliver Perez (4.8 BB/9) as well. Even promising closer Mike Gonzalez (5 BB/9 last year) was traded away, perhaps for the same reason. Accordingly, the team's rate of walks given up has improved from dead last in the NL in 2005 to 8thbest so far this season. And most importantly, the team's stable of young starting pitchers, who collectively represent the hopes and dreams of future contention by the Pirates, have all bought in.
Power righty Ian Snell, and lefthanders Tom Gorzelanny and Paul Maholm – not a one over 25 years old – collectively are registering merely 2.64 BB/9 in this rough measure of grit and composure. 23-year-old reliever Matt Capps, having wrested the closing duties from the ineffective Salomon Torres, is doing one better with a sterling 1.92 BB/9.
(To offer perspective on this statistic, control master Greg Maddux has averaged 1.5 BB/9 over the past ten years or so. Chris Carpenter the talented but frustrating Toronto Blue Jay fluctuated between 3 and 4 walks per complete game; Chris Carpenter the Cy Young-winning Cardinal has been consistent in giving out less than 2 free passes per.)
However, this granular improvement has failed to yield the kind of results that show up on the bottom line – wins and losses. There is a lot of sentiment that Tracy (and to a lesser extent Colburn) may be on the hot seat in Pittsburgh if they register yet another last-place finish in baseball's worst division.
The Pirates' big money players – Jason Bay, Jack Wilson and newly acquired first baseman Adam LaRoche – have been profound disappointments, and lesser lights like Chris Duffy and Jose Bautista have seen their progress stall. However unproductive the lineup has been, however, the manager's only solution has been to write the same names in different orders. Pittsburgh's bench players receive as few at bats as any team's in the league, even as the 1, 2, 4, and 5 spots in the order are in constant flux around Freddy Sanchez in the 3 hole.
Of course, our manager has also employed a vast number of lineups this season, but he has also continued his trademark bench usage, giving more than 100 at bats to 15 different players on the Cardinal roster (Ankiel will certainly become the 16th later this month). Jim Tracy, by comparison, has doled out significant playing time to only three players outside his calcified starting eight, and then only by necessity born of injury.
If he is managing to save his job, Tracy would love to make a statement against the surging Cardinal team, and play the spoiler to our division chase. However, the Redbird team has shown the spirit and energy to overcome worse odds than the ones we face now, with two games to make up, and two teams to catch, in the 29 games left on our schedule.