Last week, the city of Pittsburgh welcomed the defending World Series Champions the San Francisco Giants to PNC Park in the Pirates’ toughest test of the 2011 season to date. The Pirates responded by taking one of three from the Giants but kept themselves in each game of the series and looked like a team on the verge of making a run.
The Bucs went on to win a series on the road against the Rockies, who currently sit atop the NL West at 17-10.
Over the last week, the Pirates showed a few signs that they may not be the same Pirates team we are used to. Three of those signs stick out a little more than the others:
Management’s successful moves
When Brandon Wood came into the Pirates lineup for Ronny Cedeno, the reactions were mixed. Cedeno simply wasn’t getting it done. After batting .146 in his last 16 games and going hitless in the last three before he was replaced by Wood, the Pirates made the right choice.
Wood, who was claimed off of waivers from the Los Angeles Dodgers, came out in his first game with a double and two RBI’s against the Nationals, immediately making his presence felt at the plate. But even more, in his five games, Wood has played strong defense and brought the athleticism to the infield that the Pirates were hoping for.
His positivity and his excitement at joining the Pirates roster have also brought some fresh energy to the Bucs dugout.
The upper management of the Pirates wasn’t done there. Right when people were forgetting about Cedeno, they made a risky move by bringing him back into the lineup and leaving Wood on the bench. The result?
In his first game back, Cedeno had a triple that scored Pedro Alvarez and helped them take a 3-0 lead on the Rockies. In the series winning game on Sunday night, Cedeno bunted in the Pirates first run on their way to an 8-4 victory.
The Pirates continue to shuffle players but keep cultivating some sort of energy from whoever they bring in. The management is to thank.
Nineth inning solidarity
Throughout the Rockies and Giants series, the Pirates managed to hold onto any lead they started the ninth inning with. Because of that, ninth inning solidarity makes this list and brings hopes to Pirates fans all over.
In their only win of the series against the Giants on April 27, the Pirates played eight innings of great baseball leading into the top of the ninth.
In a scene all too familiar for Pirates fans, the top of the ninth started with unsteady pitching. Joel Hanrahan came into the game and immediately walked Pablo Sandoval. The crowd exhaled as Pat Burrell popped out on a full count, but the tension was back after a Cody Ross single left two men on and the go ahead run at the plate.
In the past, the situation goes something like this: Miguel Tejada comes to bat, hits a 3-run homer, Pirates go down 1-2-3 in the ninth and lose. Maybe the game even goes to extra innings before the pitching and batting simultaneously fall through the cracks.
Just when the Pirates were going to take down the World Series champions they would crumble and let it go. Eight innings of great baseball down the drain.
But then, to my surprise, the Pirates did exactly what they needed to. Hanrahan threw a tough pitch that Tejada couldn’t handle, a ground ball turned into a double play, and the Pirates clinched the victory as Hanrahan’s picked up his seventh save of the season
In the early spring, all the talk was about the Pirates new and improved offense. Yet, after the first month of the season, that hype was hardly supported by results. Runs didn’t come easy, and only three times did the Pirates win by a margin of four or more runs.
Yet, as April was swept under the rug and May came over the horizon, something awakened in the Pirates lineup. On Sunday night, the Pirates broke the seal on what had been a quiet year at the plate against one of the best pitching staffs in the league.
After five innings, the Pirates were still having trouble pulling away from the Rockies. The series was tied 1-1, both games being won by three runs, and the division leading Rockies were down 4-2 and at the crossroads of the series. This time, the Pirates dictated how things would end.
It was Dexter Fowler’s double that turned the 6-4 lead into an 8-4 lead that helped the Pirates, and Pirates management shined once again. Xavier Paul had two hits in his first start for Pittsburgh after being claimed off of waivers from the Los Angeles Dodgers. He had a two-run triple to key a four-run rally in the second and added a single in the fourth.
So after a week that looked tough to get through at the beginning of the season, the Pirates have survived. Their bats are warming up, the front office is gaining confidence, and the pitchers have held their own late in games.
If I were a Pirates fan, I’d be looking forward to the upcoming home stand with the Dodgers and Astros at PNC Park. Neither teams are having particularly strong years, and if the Pirates can take care of business they could begin their separation from the middle of the pack.