Thursday, September 29, 2011

Top 10 Highlights of the 2011 Pirates Season

The Pirates wrap up another losing season, finishing 72-90, their 19th straight losing season, an unbelievable milestone, albeit one with which you don't actually want to be associated.

At the beginning of the season, I wondered what was enough for fans? How much progress would be enough for your average black and gold bleeding Pittsburgher? Did they have to make the playoffs? Post a winning record? Or just make significant improvement over past season?

At the start of the season, I went on record with a prediction of 66 wins. I'm happy to say that they exceeded my expectations. What I really didn't see coming were the high highs and awful lows. Unlike previous seasons, this team was anything but boring. I could have lived without the entire month of August, when they dropped 22 games in a single month, but, as I said, at least this year, they kept my attention from wire to wire.

I've come up with the Top 10 most memorable moments of this Pirates season and I don't think I could even name 10 moments for the entirety of the Jim Tracy and John Russell eras combined. [Well, maybe I could in a John McEnroe 'you cannot be serious!?' way.] Onward.

10.  Tigers Series. It was early in the season, but this was my first inkling that I might have some fun with this team. Kevin Correia was in his early season form (which is to say still really good) and Max Scherzer (2.98 ERA) was on the hill for the Tigers. PNC Park was nearly full. Down by two-runs, the Pirates touched him up in the 6th inning and then got to the bullpen in the 7th. It was the first time in about four years that I thought baseball might be fun again.

9.  Tony Watson's first appearance. I have a soft spot for this kid. The Pirates and the Diamondbacks were tied up at 1-1. Sadly, Jose Veras was having one of those wild nights to which he is prone (walk, single, hit batsman). Clint Hurdle took a flyer on Watson. In his first major league appearance, Watson entered a tied game, with just one out and two inherited runners. What the hell. You only live once, kid. All he did was strike out the next two batters. I dunno about you, but I think Watson's got a very bright future.

8.  Alex Presley homers in Toronto. With injuries all over the place, the Pirates brought Alex Presley up from the minors for a three game set in Toronto. In his second at-bat ever, Presley sent a rocket over the right field fence. I don't think it's any accident that the wheels started to come off for the Pirates when they lost Presley to injury.

7.  Beating the Brewers. Yeah, I'd like to beat the Brewers more, but still ... at least the Pirates got off the schneid. Picture it:  PNC Park, the second game of a twi-night double header. The Pirates haven't beaten the Brewers since the Clinton Administration. (Okay, it was more recent than that, but it felt that long.) They already lost the first game, but in the second game, Brad Lincoln gave them six solid innings and, finally, after he exited, the long dormant offense woke up and chased Zack Greinke in the 7th, putting up seven runs. It was a thing of beauty. And way, way overdue.

6.  11th inning walk-off home run versus Cardinals. Another team that gives the Pirates agita is the St. Louis Cards, lead by the wholly irksome Tony LaRussa. Albert Pujols owns the Pirates like they are his prison bitch and he has more home runs in PNC Park than any other human being, living or dead. When the Cards come to town, it's usually a nightmare for Pirates fans. But this year, amid that execrable August, there was one single bright spot -- Garrett Jones' 11th inning, walk-off dinger versus the redbirds on August 15th. LaRussa looked like he had been constipated for a solid month when that ball sailed over the Clemente Wall. Few things make me happier than a disappointed LaRussa.

5.  Jeff Karstens' pitching gem versus the Astros. Anybody who reads this blog at all, knows that I love Jeff Karstens. I think he's solid. He's a great pro. Karstens just goes out and goes to work every five days. No complaints, no whining, just gives his team six or seven solid innings. Every time. But to pitch a complete game shut out on just 83 pitches? Amazing. Simply amazing.

4. Little Michael McKenry's 3-run dinger versus the Cubs. It's a Friday night. PNC Park is just about full, the Pirates are 46-42 at this point, and the place is just electric. It's been a back and forth battle all night. In bottom of the 8th, down 4-3, Neil Walker is on 1st base. There are two out and they don't have many more chances to pull this game out. A Lyle Overbay single moves Walker to 2nd and Josh Harrison brings Walker home to tie the game. Up to the plate steps little Fort McKenry. At this point, it's important to remember that McKenry was the seventh catcher used by the Pirates. He was hitting just .242 in 61 at bats with just two extra-base hits (both doubles). He was not, nor is he a power hitter. And I remember thinking, 'c'mon, just get a single, just a little flare, a gork, a ground ball with eyes ... a dying quail ... c'mon.' He drove the ball deep, deep into left field, up to about two rows right under the scoreboard. It was the kind of pandemonium we haven't seen at PNC until this season. I hope we see many more celebrations like this one in 2012 and beyond.

3.  19 inning loss to the Atlanta Braves. Yeah, this is a low-light, but it is a game that you will never, ever forget. And at least the baseball gods smited the Braves. Just like the Buccos, they're watching the MLB playoffs, too.

2.  Joel Hanrahan versus the Boston Red Sox. The third highest payroll in MLB. A likely MVP in Jacoby Ellsbury. One of the absolute best hitters in baseball, Adrian Gonzalez. Mr. Clutch (and also one of the largest human beings I've ever seen standing at home plate) -- David Ortiz. On Friday night, with a two-run lead, the Hammer came out of the pen and sat down Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and A-Gon to preserve the win. The next night, in nearly identical circumstances, in front of another standing room crowd, in a light rain, Hanrahan got Ortiz to ground out weakly, then Ellsbury flied out. After Pedroia doubled, the stage was set for Hanrahan's finest moment -- a swinging strike out of Adrian Gonzalez. Positively electric.

1.  Extra inning win over the Phillies. That the Phils are the class of the national league is a foregone conclusion for me. It's an all-star line-up from top to bottom and the pitching rotation is even better than that. The Pirates have like zero chance against these guys, right? Sure, about a third of the fans at PNC were Phillies fans and I know there were chartered buses traveling east to west on the turnpike, bringing in even more Phils fans for the second and third games of this set. But the best of the bunch was the first, the Friday night nail-biter that ended with Jose Tabata driving in Xavier Paul with two-outs in the bottom of the 12th. I really don't know what else I can say about that game, and I feel sorry for you if you missed it. But I know what Bob Prince would say. We had 'em all the way.

What were your favorite moments of the Pirates 2011 season? What do you expect or want from the team in 2012?

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