April 21, 2010
Brewers at Pirates
April being April, the Pirates were in second place at the start of tonight's action, while the Brewers sat below .500. The AL Central might get all the pub for personifying parity, but with the Cardinals out front and the Astros in the cellar, the Pirates can take some satisfaction in ranking atop the muddled middle in the division two weeks into the action. This early on, it would be silly to credit this with too much significance. At 5-7, the Brewers came into town with their own issues, but here again, two weeks is barely a blink in baseball time.
However, with Charlie Morton on the mound looking to get his season going, and with Jeff Clement struggling at the plate, tonight was an opportunity for the Bucs to get some of their ready-as-they'll-ever-be talents. To complicate matters, John Russell was dealing with a short bench, as both Andy LaRoche and Bobby Crosby were out with nagging hurts, pressing Delwyn Young into the lineup at third base. That left him with outfield reserve Ryan Church, his backup catcher, Jason Jaramillo, and the club's Rule 5 pick, John Raynor. That's not a bad group to choose from, but the shortage of infielders limited their potential applications, since there wasn't anyone to plug in should they wish to pinch-hit for shortstop Ronny Cedeno, for example.
So, as I head back to Chicago to settle back into my preferred perches in Wrigley and the Cell, road-trip theater got its third venue in as many games. Three is a number with all sorts of significance in baseball, of course: three strikes, three outs, etc. Three is the root of the Celtic triskelion, the symbolic trinity of spirals that some optimistic neopagans associate with personal growth, spiritual development, and development. In a game that got silly early, it made sense to remember that three shalt be the number thou shalt count, no more, no less.
Now, say what you will for the Pirates tasking the indignity-inured individuals still stuck on the Bucs in the Steel City in the name of personal growth and spiritual development, but tonight's exercise in three-D only mounded up additional agony for these unhappy few. Morton made the game ugly early by achieving a rare quartet of threes in his first dozen batters faced: three outs, three doubles, three singles, and three walks. Maybe that's a great hand in some sort of card game, but it's a grim combination when your suit's diamonds or clubs. The Brewers even got into the spirit of the thing by splitting their scoring evenly, three in the first, three in the second. They even left three of Morton's baserunners on base. Morton may throw 95, but nights like tonight will send him to the boneyard or the bullpen faster than you can say Ian Snell. (Or Kip Wells. Or Kris Benson. Or Paul Wagner.)
Nights such as this lead to a challenge: watching for the things you otherwise might never see. You can watch with a clinical curiosity, to see if the blowout blooms into a rare "runs scored in every inning" contest. Nope, mop-up man Brian Burres managed a scoreless fourth, so that was off the table. Halfway into a blowout, you can start to wonder about shots at the cycle, but as the temperature dropped after sundown, it seemed as if there'd been no massive stat-pad drive tonight.
How about a David Bush shutout, on a night when his fastball wasn't going to touch 88, let alone 90? Denied again—he got hooked after seven shutout frames and 96 pitches. Bush caught a couple of breaks, loading the bases in the first with a pair of two-out walks to Garrett Jones and Ryan Doumit, but squeaking by after a loud out fly to center by Jeff Clement. Bush's biggest break came in the fifth when, with Akinori Iwamura and Andrew McCutchen aboard with one out, Lastings Milledge laced what seemed like a sure base hit—only to see the liner swiftly snagged by Jim Edmonds, who threw into second to easily double up Iwamura.
After that, it was really just up to the Bucs to avoid the shutout, which they did in the eighth off Chris Narveson with back-to-back doubles by McCutchen and Milledge. Although McCutchen made a first-inning error on Casey McGehee's RBI single, he managed a trio of hits and a pair of doubles, providing yet another game to make the case that he's the somebody on the club people should and perhaps will wind up paying to see.
In an 8-1 loss in the series opener, McCutchen's game was one of the very few happy takeaways from an otherwise miserable night. However, losing a game by six points towards an interesting statistical blip in the early going: going into tonight's game, whether you use simple Pythagorean or third-order wins, the Pirates were three games ahead of where you'd expect. Again, it's April, silly-stat season, so it's worth not getting too wound up about it one way or another, but tonight's game was an indication of one of the reasons why you should only take these things only so far. After Morton's triune disasterpiece, tonight's game was the Bucs' sixth loss of the season by six or more runs—that's all six of their losses. Part of that's the product of a staff stocked with non-established starters and more than a few filler flingers. Guys like Morton and Daniel McCutchen are going to have these sorts of days, but measuring the greatness of Hayden Penn or Brian Burres in mop-up roles in lost causes can help generate this sort of outsized split. So, the other way to look at it is that this was a loss whether the Pirates lost by six runs or 16; blowout losses will happen with this kind of talent, but the degree of how bad those losses are could overstate the club's weakness via interpretive metrics.