The Pittsburgh Pirates took an unexpected vacation on their way to getting closer to one of baseball’s infamous records during the month of August-they visited the land of winning baseball. The Pirates went 17-13 during the month, which may not seem like a big deal until you consider that only the Angels, Yankees, and Padres had more wins in August (all three contenders notched 18 victories). The 17 wins were the most victories in a month for the Pirates since they also notched 17 victories in May, 2004.

However, the most stunning part of the Pirates’ August was their offensive explosion, as they scored 182 runs, most in the major leagues. They also hit 45 home runs to break the club monthly record that had stood since August, 1947 when Hall of Famers Ralph Kiner and Hank Greenberg led a lineup that went deep 43 times. Second baseman Freddy Sanchez‘s 44 hits led the National League in August, and first baseman Adam LaRoche was tied for second with 40. Sanchez hit .374/.447/.610 for the month, while LaRoche’s line was .348/.406/.565. All this from a club that still is only 10th in the 16-team NL with an average of 4.5 runs scored a game, and 12th in the circuit in team Equivalent Average, not to mention still last in the NL Central standings.

So, what has gotten into the Pirates late in a season in which they are 59-76 and certain to finish under .500 for a 15th consecutive year, one short of the major league record of 16 set by the Phillies from 1933-48? “Well, maybe it’s because we couldn’t have played any worse in July,” said backup first baseman/catcher Josh Phelps, who had a dazzling .516/.579/1.065 line for August. Phelps wasn’t trying to be humorous, just frank. The Pirates were a somewhat-respectable 40-48 at the All-Star break after winning nine of their last 13 games in the first half. However, the Pirates then sentenced themselves to another sub.-500 finish by losing 22 of 32 games coming out of the break, falling to 50-70.

It all begs the question of whether the Pirates’ August surge is an indication that things are finally getting better for a moribund franchise, or a just a small regression to the mean. Ever-optimistic manager Jim Tracy thinks the Pirates’ offense is finally living up to its potential after underachieving for four months. “We are hitting the way I thought we would hit all year,” Tracy said. “I didn’t expect us to be at the top of the league in runs scored but I also didn’t expect us to be at the bottom. I really felt we would be much improved over last year but it seemed like we were an eight-cylinder engine hitting only about 4 1/2 cylinders for most of the first half.”

The Pirates were last in the NL in scoring last season, and were ahead of only Washington at the end of July this year. To illustrate how weak the Pirates’ hitting attack is, even including the August surge, only Sanchez can be considered a two-win player so far this season, as he leads the team in VORP with a 28.8 mark. LaRoche also needed a surge just to get his VORP to 17.8; he’s fallen far short of the great expectations the Pirates had when they acquired him from the Braves in a trade for closer Mike Gonzalez in January. Right fielder Xavier Nady (16.9) and Phelps (16.5) are the only other Pirates over 15.0, and left fielder Jason Bay has been a huge disappointment with a 5.7 mark after 72.6 in 2005 and 49.7 last year.

“It was frustrating for most of the year for the whole offense,” LaRoche said. “It seemed like nobody was hot early then if somebody did get hot, it was just one game. We’re finally showing what we’re capable of doing. You can see the confidence starting to grow up and down the lineup. This is the type of hitting I thought we’d have all year.”

General Manager Dave Littlefield has stressed pitching since taking over midway through the 2001 season but the Pirates are a disappointing 13th in the NL in runs allowed with an average of 5.0 a game. Left-handers Tom Gorzelanny (4.8 SNLVAR) and Paul Maholm (2.7) and right-hander Ian Snell (3.7) have provided some hope in a season in which Opening Day starter Zach Duke has missed two months with elbow tendonitis. All are 25 or younger. Matt Capps has been the only reason for optimism in the bullpen. The 23-year-old has made as seamless transition from set-up man to closer, his 4.059 WXRL ranking fifth in the NL; he’s the only Pirates reliever in the top 30.

There don’t seem to be enough bright spots to anticipate the Pirates being contenders anytime soon. Further clouding the picture is that Chief Executive Officer Kevin McClatchy is stepping down at the end of the season, and no one knows if his replacement will want to get rid of Littlefield and Tracy and go with a new management team. Both men have one more year left on their contracts.

Tracy, for his part, makes what sounds like an impassioned plea to stay when he talks about the long-term prospects of the franchise. “I know the fans in Pittsburgh have been waiting a long time and they’re great fans, unbelievable fans with the way they still support us,” Tracy said. “It’s been another tough year. I know that. But things are getting better, I’m telling you. Look at each one of these players. Look at this team coming together.”

  • The two major league teams in Texas are taking different approaches to their ills this season. Houston fired GM Tim Purpura and manager Phil Garner this past week, less than two years after they helped the Astros to the lone World Series berth in the franchise’s 46 seasons. Meanwhile, although Texas has yet to win a playoff series in the 47 seasons since the franchise began as the second incarnation of the Washington Senators in 1961, first-year manager Ron Washington had the 2009 option picked up on his contract this past week.

    “I just felt it was time for a change,” Astros owner Drayton McLane told the Houston Chronicle. “Our goal and objective is to be a champion and I just feel we needed a fresh start. We have not done what we should have done in the last two years and I felt we needed to put more invigoration and enthusiasm into the organization.”

    The Astros went 82-80 last season, finishing second to St. Louis in the NL Central but missing the playoffs. They are 61-76 this year and in fifth place. Tal Smith, president of baseball operations, will handle the GM duties for the remainder of the season, and bench coach Cecil Cooper was elevated to interim manager. McLane and Smith aren’t likely to begin interviews for the GM position until the Astros return home from a 11-day road trip on Sept. 10. “Tal and I have talked about several names,” McLane said.

    Garner believes Cooper should get the manager’s job on a permanent basis. “I’ve been saying for a couple of years this guy is the most qualified guy out there that hasn’t managed,” Garner said. “Hopefully, this is a long-term fit for the Astros and the city.”

    Over in the American League, the Rangers are last in the Western Division with a 62-73 record, and have had just one winning season since their last division title in 1999. Yet, ownership is happy with what Washington has done as Buck Showalter’s replacement, leading the Rangers to a 39-31 mark since a 23-42 start. “Adversity reveals character,” Rangers GM Jon Daniels told the Dallas Morning News. “It would have been easy for Ron to react negatively, but I think he learned. I do feel confident with his leadership going forward that we’re headed in the right direction.”

  • The press conference announcing that Baltimore had made interim manager Dave Trembley its skipper for 2008 had barely finished when the Orioles went directly into the tank. That was August 22, and the Orioles were pounded 30-3 by Texas in the first game of a doubleheader that night, beginning a nine-game losing streak.

    Of course, horrible finishes have become a tradition in Baltimore since the Orioles began their streak of what almost assuredly will be 10 straight losing seasons back in 1998. Over the past 10 seasons, the Orioles are a dismal 228-311 from August 1 until the end of the season, a .423 winning percentage. That includes a 9-19 record in August this season. Of the 19 August and Septembers dating back to ’98, the Orioles have had only two winning months, going 20-8 in September, 1999 and 18-10 in September, 2004.

    “It’s something that I was aware of, and I am going to have to sort out for myself,” said Orioles President Andy MacPhail, who took over earlier this season, of the late-season failings to the Baltimore Sun. “It’s one of those things that you have to find out what it is and how to combat it.”

  • Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland knows all about turning around a losing franchise, going back to his first job as a big league skipper. Leyland took over the Pirates prior to the 1986 season after a year that had included the infamous Pittsburgh drug trials and continued reports that ownership was going to move the team. Five years later, the Pirates won their first of three straight NL East titles.

    So, after Leyland said this past week that he thought Kansas City was on its way toward respectability and more, it would seem to be wise to keep an eye on the Royals. They have moved past the White Sox to move out of last place in the AL Central, which might not seem like a big deal until you realize the Royals have finished last three straight years, and had only one winning season in the past 12.

    “There’s no question about it. They’re definitely on the right page,” Leyland told the Kansas City Star. “They’re getting some good talent. I’ve thought all along, their general manager (Dayton Moore) is real sharp. He obviously came from good stock in Atlanta. (Tigers President and GM) Dave Dombrowski really likes him, says he’s right up front, honest. Dave was really impressed with him when we talked trade with them. He was really impressed with the way he handled things. He was right to the point. Honest. They’ll get this turned around. They’re getting some pretty good talent.”

  • From the rumor mill: Some in the Yankees’ organization are disappointed that veteran Mike Mussina, pulled from the starting rotation in favor of rookie Ian Kennedy this past week, did not stay in the best of shape after signed a two-year, $23-million contract extension as a free agent over the winter. … Twins center fielder Torii Hunter says he will give the Twins first chance to re-sign him when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season. … Bob Wickman‘s career may be over after he developed a reputation of being a me-first player before being released by Atlanta, which is why the Braves pulled the rare move of designating their former closer for assignment in the midst of a pennant race. … After sitting out the season recovering from shoulder surgery, one-time Cubs ace Mark Prior wants to return next season. However, the Cubs might not have room for him in the rotation with left-hander Ted Lilly and right-handers Carlos Zambrano and Jason Marquis on long-term contracts, and lefties Sean Marshall and Rich Hill having the advantage of being talented pitchers who are not yet eligible for salary arbitration. … The White Sox have moved rookie Josh Fields from third base to left field, and that means two things for the upcoming offseason: third baseman Joe Crede will be offered arbitration and left fielder Scott Podsednik won’t, becoming a free agent if he isn’t traded. … Resurgent first baseman Carlos Pena is a rare veteran who wants to stay with the Devil Rays; they’re expected to begin talks about a multi-year contract extension soon. … Rookie second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera has played so well for Cleveland since being called up from the minor leagues last month that the Indians are considering reshuffling their infield next season. Cabrera would play shortstop-his natural position-while Jhonny Peralta would move from shortstop to third base, and Josh Barfield would be reinstated as the starting second baseman. … The White Sox’ second base job in 2008 will likely be a spring training battle between Danny Richar, a rookie who has struggled since being called up to the major leagues in July, and Chris Getz, who has shined at Double-A Birmingham this season and will play in the Arizona Fall League.

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