They were applauding a strikeout in the 1st inning.
It was mid-August evening in Boston, the kind of hot muggy night mosquitoes dream about. The normal 2008 sellout crowd was packed into Fenway Park like a family road trip in a Camry.
But when the Red Sox fans applauded Jon Lester getting Rangers’ cleanup man Milton Bradley to swing and miss to end the Top of the 1st, I was applauding right along with them in my black-and-yellow Jason Bay jersey.
The best baseball atmosphere I have ever experienced was that game in Boston. With the Red Sox down a pair of games in the AL East but holding on to a wild card spot, the Fenway Faithful were an assembly of 37,876 with a purpose.They were all paying attention to the game, an alien concept to a 14-year-old Pirates fan. They were focused on each pitch; offering a standing ovation to more than just home runs.
Long before the Boston fans celebrated another win by singing along to “Dirty Water,” I was hooked. It was a contact high of sharing winning baseball with thousands of others.
Cause a big sensation
That is exactly what I want to see in Pittsburgh this weekend. The noise and focus may not be to the same extent as Fenway in the heart of a pennant race. It is still June, the Pirates are coming off 19 losing seasons instead of a World Series, and the Bucs probably won’t send seven All-Stars to the Midsummer Classic.
But the team is winning. They are two games out of a playoff spot, putting aside how early that kind of standings-watching may be. Pittsburghers are great baseball fans, just waiting to see a team worthy of their passion and applause. I expect some high attendance in cozy PNC Park, as told to me by the employee at the box office. More importantly, I expect to see folks that are there almost solely to cheer on the Pirates to victory (putting aside Boys II Men fans on Saturday). That’s something that hasn’t been seen too often around here.
Believe me, I love walking up to the ballpark, buying a $20 for $10 from a scalper, then sneaking me the one of the many empty seats behind home plate, where the ushers are as apathetic as the businessmen on their Blackberries. But being surrounded by a huge crowd that is locked in to the game at hand is an experience that can not be beat.
The question now is, can the Pirates maintain that atmosphere longer than they did last year? Can they turn people lining up at the box office on a Friday morning in June into fans cheering on a division leader instead of a playoff long-shot?
Trying to find the key / to fifty million fables
They have the opportunity. The great pitching is more sustainable than last year’s model, thanks in no small part to offseason additions Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett racking up high strikeout totals, and James McDonald transforming into a bat-missing All-Star candidate. Even the rotation’s weak link, Kevin Correia, could be swapped out for Brad Lincoln or the efficient Rudy Owens at some point soon. And while the bullpen is due for a regression from their 2.56 ERA, the peripheral stats and an NL-average FIP (3.79) will likely keep the reliable relief coming.
But we all know it’s the offense that needs improvement. Much grumbling has been expressed over the troubling first two months for winter acquisitions Clint Barmes and Casey McGehee. But even if those two rebound and approach career norms, it won’t be enough to light a true fire under an ice-cold Pirates lineup.
No, the offensive turnaround still lies in the potential of one man in particular, and I think you know who I am talking about:
Meet the new boss / same as the old boss
It has been written time and time again as to become a cliché: the key to the 2012 Pirates season lies in Pedro Alvarez. And yet all clichés have in them a hint of truth. For the Pirates to keep a steady pace with the Reds and Cardinals, they need El Toro to unleash his bullish power.
So far, as center fielder Andrew McCutchen goes, so goes the offensive production. Using Bill James’ “runs created” stat, Andrew McCutchen has created 23.1 percent of the Pirates offense, with Neil Walker (12.9 percent) a distant second. That’s the largest share of any MLB team’s run production this side of Joey Votto (23.4 percent).
That is a testament to Andrew McCutchen’s rising star, but also deeply troubling if McCutchen were to slump or suffer an… well, let’s not even say the “I” word.
We are well aware of what Pedro Alvarez can do. Pirates fans have had visions of him regularly smacking baseballs into the Allegheny River from the time he was chosen out of Vanderbilt with the number two overall pick in 2008. There is no need to rehash the odyssey of Alvarez’s last four years.
Don’t get fooled again?
But we have seen the flashes. Just remember that two-week hitting binge from April 18 to May 4. In 54 plate appearances, he smashed six homers, four doubles, and compiled a .367 average and 1.224 OPS. The strikeouts were there too, but Alvarez didn’t look like he was flailing.
Now for more numbers: The good news is that Pedro Alvarez is swinging at substantially more pitches in the zone this season compared to last year (63.5% in 2011 up to 70%) and making contact with more those pitches (84% up to 85.5%). His line drive rate is down, but he is cutting down on ground balls and infield flies. It’s easy to envision more balls in play dropping for hits moving forward, as his .253 BABIP is far below his .300 career BABIP.
If Alvarez can adjust to the higher number of sliders and curveballs he is seeing this season, he could be in business. With his high strikeout totals, Neal Huntington may never get the star slugger desired. But he might just get an above-average third baseman that is still just 25 years old, and that is an asset.
Then Huntington could stand to add a productive 30-something piece to the lineup like Josh Willingham or Carlos Quentin, giving manager Clint Hurdle the opportunity to put together a lineup that is a legitimate threat to opposing pitchers instead of a Major League laughingstock.
The happy ones are near
Pittsburghers are longing for a contender, especially those my age that only know a pennant race as something fans of other teams get to feel. They are longing to look at the standings in August and see “PITTSBURGH” at the top. They are longing to watch the Pirates highlights lead off SportsCenter. And most of all, they are longing for a winning team to cheer on like they mean it.
Places like Boston, New York, St. Louis and Philadelphia may take most of the playoff spots and the World Series, but they don’t have a monopoly on loud crowds and excitement at the ballpark. They don’t have to be the only ones who get to applaud their pitcher striking out a guy in the 1st inning.
And now, let’s finish it off with a video cut together by the phenomenal Kurt Gingrich: