A Warning Shot: Pirates at Cardinals

These Pittsburgh Pirates suddenly look a lot better than when the St. Louis Cardinals last met them, warns columnist Will Horton.

The rest of the NL Central is hot. The Cardinals are not. And god help me, I might just have brought on the seventh sign of the sportswriting apocalypse by using Paris Hilton's vocabulary in a baseball feature.

But there's no denying that the Cardinals' momentum has taken a decidedly awkward stumble, like that of a thirteen-year-old learning to dance who just briefly believes he's got it, just before his well-shined shoe comes down on the hem of his comely young partner's dress.

Meanwhile, the Pirates, who have played the perpetual wallflower, have suddenly and quite suavely put a foot forward. They've won 7 of 10, including a just-snapped six-game winning streak, and are a mere two games under .500.

For both teams, the change in step has come from their starting pitching. While Cardinals' starters posted a very fine 3.30 ERA in April, the mercury has risen sharply in May, reaching 4.81 even before last night's rare blowup by Adam Wainwright was recorded.

The Pirates' starters have done just the opposite, dropping more than a run from their April mark. Any drop would be welcome, as the Bucs had a horrendous first month, posting a 5.78 ERA while leading the major leagues in runs allowed. In fact, the last time we met, it appeared that they might challenge their own record books to become the first Pirates team to allow 1,000 runs in a season. Even staff ace Ian Snell, who once was the lone stalwart, succumbed to whatever meatball-throwing malady it was that afflicted this team.

The worst offender on the team at that time was the gentlemanly Matt Morris, who held the dual distinction of having the highest ERA on the team and being the highest-paid Pirate in team history. However, the men who hired Morris late last season are no longer around to sign his paycheck, and while major league contracts are binding, major league jobs are not.

In a very rare show of early gut-checking, the new general manager decided it would be better to suffer a small loss of face rather than a larger loss in the clubhouse or the grandstands, and released the soft-tossing right hander. For his part, Morris absolved the team of any blame in the decision. His once-famous curveball was now toothless, and of the remainder of his repertoire this season, let it be said that no pitching machine was more regular or consistent in delivery. The former Cardinal immediately quashed any hint of a comeback attempt, and retired gracefully with a 3.98 career ERA, a respectable mark which can be sullied no further by the 9.67 ERA he had suffered this season.

This first-time general manager, the man who took this decisive action, is quickly earning a name for himself in Pittsburgh, a baseball city which has been crying out for better than fifteen years for someone, anyone, to stand up and bring leadership to this woebegone team. His name is Neal Huntington.

His name is not perhaps as well-known or well-discussed right now as that of Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby – as hockey madness has swept suddenly and gloriously across the streets of Steeltown, the lowliest Penguins' arena sweeper might rate free drinks for a week while young Mr. Huntington might still get carded for cigarettes – but long-suffering Pirates fans are starting to perk up and take notice.

Huntington (right) was hired out of the Cleveland Indians organization, where he worked in scouting and player development for the ten years prior to this; which, if you haven't followed the rebirth and rise of the Indians' recent fortunes, was a pretty good ten years of scouting and player development. The team scouted exceptionally well, not only among the ranks of amateurs but also among other teams' minor league rosters, and systematically built a contender on top of a rich foundation of emerging talent through drafts and trades.

In order to have lured such an executive to this perennially underserved baseball market, the Pirates' owners must have been willing to give Huntington considerable rein. Whether it was given or not, the GM has taken it, cleaning house from top to bottom. Manager Jim Tracy, wildly unpopular with fans and players alike, and his coaching staff were exited, as were a double-handful of men in charge of various aspects of drafting and player development. In their places are a generation of think-different-ers, including many who are card-carrying sabermetricians.

Meanwhile, the Pirates' long list of long-leashed "prospects" from years past are being given very close scrutiny. Many have not fared well. Long-time comeback hopeful Sean Burnett, a one-time first round pick who knows every inch of the trainer's room by heart, was demoted and told to prove himself further even after a competitive Spring. Another locally infamous first-round flameout, John Van Benschoten, was sent down Monday after nailing his own coffin with a horrific start against the Braves. Few tears were shed. Bryan Bullington, a first round albatross from 2002 who is currently toting a 6.81 ERA (and a 1.72 WHIP) in AAA, may be next under the microscope.

While some have suffered, others have soared, most notably Pirates' breakthrough centerfielder Nate McLouth (right). McLouth was a high school draft pick in 2000, a late-rounder who had been pressed into major league service well before his talents had ripened. Quite suddenly, though, in August of last year the switch suddenly came on for him, and he has not stopped hitting since. He hit .284/.391/.538 the rest of the way while stealing 16 bases in 17 tries (more than doubling his previous career total) and launching ten homers to boot. This season's numbers for the 26-year-old have trumped those, as he has given the Bucs frightening potency from the leadoff position.

The emergence of McLouth and catcher Ronny Paulino, and the resurgence of Xavier Nady, bring to light a certain reality – these Pirates are pretty good at scoring runs. Their rate of 4.97 runs per game is third-best in the National League, a fact that is made suddenly more potent with the emerging respectability of the team's pitching staff.

Which all adds up to say that while the Cardinals come home rough-handled from their road trip, and looking for a patsy to kick around the home ballpark, these Pirates may not be the patsies we're looking for.

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