Paulino hasn’t quit


ATLANTA — In previous postings, I’ve wondered about Ronny Paulino’s ability and ripped his lack of focus. But I’ve got to give him some props for a hustling play last night in a doomed effort against the Braves, and a similar play he made tonight that paid off.

Friday, the Pirates were trailing 8-0 in the seventh inning. Jose Bautista at first and Xavier Nady at second, one out. Paulino hit a roller to second baseman Kelly Johnson. Bautista was thrown out easily at second, but Paulino chugged down the line and beat the throw from shortstop Edgar Renteria — no slouch on the field — to first base. By going all out, Paulino avoided an inning-ending double play.

“You never can give up,” Paulino told me this afternoon. “You have to play hard in every situation. Anything can happen.”

It didn’t. Jack Wilson grounded out to short, ending the inning. But Paulino’s effort was impressive, nonetheless.

In the ninth inning, Paulino drove in the Pirates’ lone run with a sharp double to left off rookie Jose Ascanio.

Tonight, Paulino went 2 for 2 with a walk before the rain picked up and delayed the game against the Braves. He helped the Pirates erase a 4-0 deficit in the seventh inning with another tough-play infield grounder. Again, Paulino busted his butt down the line, and this time third baseman Chipper Jones threw the ball away. A run scored and Paulino went to second. Two batters later, Ryan Doumit smacked a game-tying home run.

It’s been a tough season so far for Paulino. But he’s shown me in these two games that he’s not just playing out the string.

Gone fishin’


DEEP CREEK LAKE, Md. — Bob Nutting told me he’s never caught a fish in the lake here, although he’s tried many times. Sounds like what his ballclub’s been doing, lo these past 14 seasons.

I’m spending my All-Star break at the lake, and it seemed like a good time and place to look back on the first half of the Pirates’ 2007 season, especially the past two weeks.

There’s been a lot of sound and fury, but is it possible to note any real progress?

As I write this Sunday morning, the Pirates are a couple of hours away from their final game before the break. If they win it, they’ll have gone 5-2 in the tough, back-to-back series against the Brewers and Cubs. That would be a nice, hopeful way to begin the second half, but it doesn’t exactly thrust them into the pennant race. Remember how wonderful 37-35 seemed last year? The Pirates would have to be 20 or so games above .500 in the second half just to sniff the top of the NL Central. Not gonna happen.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. A decent second half would put the Pirates pretty much around the 75-win season I predicted. And there are some promising signs — Adam LaRoche is killing the ball, Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny (the lastest victims of Tony LaRussa’s vendetta against the Pirates) are solid, Matt Capps is for real.

There are plenty of spots that could use an upgrade — center field, catcher, a fourth and fifth starter. And I don’t expect Andrew McCutchen to fill the hole in center; I figure he’ll end up in left field once Jason Bay is traded.

Other items:

— The fan protest. Neither a flop nor a success. It was what it was: a thousand or so frustrated folks letting off some steam. It would have been better to do it on a weeknight during the series against Milwaukee — another small-market club that has figured out what it takes to put together a winner with homegrown talent.

— McClatchy’s farewell. No big surprise, there. Anyone who did not see this coming in January, when Nutting and Kevin McClatchy announced the “change of control” is either blind or naive. The change of control was just that. Bob Nutting is now in charge. Entirely.

McClatchy never had enough cash to run the operation himself, so he became a slave to his fellow investors. It was just a matter of time before someone bought him out. I never doubted his desire to win; but he made some bad decisions — Bonifay, Littlefield — and dug the hole deeper and deeper. Credit him for his passion, for saving the team and for making PNC Park a reality.

— The next CEO. The new hire will tell us exactly what Nutting plans for this franchise. Does he go with a baseball guy, who will try to turn things around? Or does he simply hire an accountant, and worry about the bottom line?

— Salomon Torres. The new, hands-down favorite to be gone by the trading deadline. There’s enough blame in this situation for both sides. The mess exposes the penny-pinching, shifty way the Pirates do business. Torres blew it by not hiring a sharp agent to negotiate his contract. It’s sort of like what I tell my wife when a pipe bursts or a floor needs refinished and she wants to do-it-ourselves. There are people who have incredible know-how that I do not possess and I will pay them to complete the task. You either pay now, or pay later. Torres is facing the latter.