Pre-game: Too early to panic over Meek’s last two outings


Of course reliever Evan Meek isn’t happy with his last two outings. After holding the eighth inning on Opening Day with one hit allowed then three straight outs — including two strikeouts — he blew a save and took the loss in the eighth inning on Saturday then nearly blew it again against the Cardinals on Monday.

But the 27-year-old right-hander said today that he isn’t letting himself worry too much over his early struggles just yet.

“It’s a long season and obviously I’m not pitching how I can or how I should be right now, but it’s too early to panic,” Meek said today. “Much too early to panic.”

I’ve got to go with him on this one. Does Meek have a long and storied history of success? Of course not. Last year was his first full season in the majors and he’s struggled in the past. But he still should get the benefit of the doubt here. At the very least, before people start talking about his 2010 All-Star season being a fluke — or before any earnest judgment of anything, really — let’s maybe get past the first week.

For his part, Meek said he expects to get the ball tonight against the Cardinals.

“I can’t wait, I’m scratching my head,” said Meek, who’s been sick but said that hasn’t affected his pitching. “If I have to take the positives out of it, the first guy, I’m getting ahead of. I’m getting two strikes. But the frustrating thing is a lot of the hits I’ve given up have been with two strikes. The count has been in my favor. That’s just… it may be bad selection, location, whatever, but I’m very close. It’s not like I’m far off. So I’m just holding on to that. Today’s our fifth game so you can’t panic right now.”

For the Pirates:
Tabata 7
Walker 4
McCutchen 8
Overbay 3
Alvarez 5
Diaz 9
Jaramillo 2
Cedeno 6
McDonald 1

For the Cards:
Theriot 6
Rasmus 8
Pujols 3
Berkman 9
Craig 7
Freese 5
Schumaker 4
Laird 2
McClellan 1

This will be Matt Diaz’s first start in right field for the Pirates this year, and Kyle McClellan’s first start…ever. The 26-year-old right-hander has pitched 202 games and three full seasons in relief in the majors.

And for those making the trek down on Thursday for the home opener, gates open at 11:30 a.m. Pre-game festivities include, in order, the announcement of the Pride of the Pirates award, a tribute to the late Chuck Tanner, a military tribute and a moment of silence for both members of the Pirates family who’ve passed away and those impacted by the recent earthquake in Japan. The Star Spangled Banner will be performed by O.A.R. saxophonist Jerry DePizzo and the first pitch will be thrown out by Bruce Tanner, son of Chuck Tanner, and caught by Manny Sanguillen. Pirates charities will also be collecting donations at the gate to benefit victims of the disaster in Japan, with proceeds going to UNICEF.

That is all for now…


Pre-game: Can Charlie do it?


Right-hander Charlie Morton had a fantastic spring, showing both the confidence and the stuff to be a successful member of the Pirates’ rotation. He led the team with a 2.63 ERA and was 2-0 in six appearances (five starts).

But that was spring.

Now he has to take that into the regular season, in a month that hasn’t been kind to him and against a team that’s done its fair share of damage as well.

Morton, 27, comes into tonight’s game with a 1-3 career record and 7.77 ERA in five starts against the Cardinals. He was 1-0 in two starts against the last year, the win coming on Sept. 22 at PNC Park, also against Kyle Lohse, who’s on the mound for the Cardinals tonight.

He’s also never won a game in April (0-5, 12.57 ERA), and was 0-8 with a 9.00 ERA on the road last year.

But manager Clint Hurdle said that he saw something different in Morton when he took the mound this spring from the guy he’d heard about and watched on tape. He just seemed more confident, and the numbers bore that out.

“I think he honestly self-evaluated (over the winter), he didn’t stick his head in the sand, he didn’t point fingers, he took responsibility and accountability for the breakdowns and the things that didn’t go well,” Hurdle said. “He found focus points to work on all winter long and came out in spring training, put them into play and stayed with it. The first outing where he had some turbulence, might have been Port Charlotte where he had five runs, most he gave up in spring training, he still pitched through traffic and never let an inning get away. I think that had been some of the issues he had in the past. Just a kid who feels like it’s his time to start pitching the way he’s capable of pitching.”

Here are the lineups for tonight:

For the Pirates: Tabata 7
Walker 4
McCutchen 8
Overbay 3
Alvarez 5
Doumit 2
Jones 9
Cedeno 6
Morton 1

And for the Cards:
Theriot 6
Rasmus 8
Pujols 3
Berkman 9
Craig 7
Freese 5
Molina 2
Schumaker 4
Lohse 1


Postgame: Ohly’s rebound


CHICAGO — Lost amid the insanity of the ninth inning of today’s 5-4 upset of the Cubs was a pretty good effort by righty Ross Ohlendorf.

Ohly2When we last saw Ohlendorf, he was struggling to get through three- and four-inning outings against lineups laden with minor leaguers in spring training. Expectations understandably might have been low for his season debut against the Cubs.

Surprise! Ohlendorf worked six innings and allowed four runs on eight hits, walked four (one intentionally) and struck out three. He threw 96 pitches, including 64 strikes.

“I didn’t show him much in spring training, but I’m planning to do well from now on,” Ohlendorf said. “I feel like I did better than I’ve been doing.”

From the start, Ohlendorf was in sync with catcher Jason Jaramillo. “For the most part, I just went with whatever JJ put down,” Ohlendorf said. “He and (Ryan) Doumit both always do good jobs calling games. Sometimes, I think too much. When I trust them more, it seems like I get into a better rhythm.”

»»» With the game tied 3-3 in the sixth, manager Clint Hurdle opted not to pinch-hit for Ohlendorf, who then lined a two-out single to left. But in the bottom of the inning, Ohlendorf served up Alfonso Soriano’s homer, which gave the Cubs a 4-3 lead.

Hurdle said he kept Ohlendorf in the game in part because the Pirates had a short bench — Andrew McCutchen was out with a sore neck, Doumit was the backup catcher and couldn’t pinch-hit. Hurdle also thought Ohlendorf — who in the fifth gave up Starlin Castro’s leadoff triple (Castro later scored to tie the game) and walked two batters — was doing well enough to stay in the game

“He was building confidence,” Hurdle said. “So give him one more inning, get him out there. That was the best I’ve ever seen him throw, so maybe I wanted to watch a little more of it. We figured we’d let him try the sixth inning.”

»»» The Pirates won a road series in their first try this season. That’s saying a lot, considering the team won just four road series all of last year. Two of those road series wins came at Wrigley Field.


In-game: Beers are on Garrett!



CHICAGO — Regardless of whether the Pirates win or lose today, the beers are on Garrett Jones!

Jones was doused from above with some sort of beverage as he chased Carlos Pena’s double in the fourth inning. A fan seated in the right field bleachers apparently tried to catch the ball, which caromed high off the wall. A green plastic cup tumbled into the wire debis catcher, but the liquid contents rained down on Jones.

Pena’s hit scored two runs. Manager Clint Hurdle went out for an explanation from the umpires, perhaps asking if there was some sort of interference rule to invoke. But the call stood and the game was tied.

Before the game, I asked center fielder Andrew McCutchen if he catches a lot of grief from Wrigley’s infamous Bleacher Creatures. McCutchen smiled and rolled his eyes.

“If you get a few hits, hit a few homers, they’ll get quiet real quick,” McCutchen said.

Side note: Jones was not supposed to be in the lineup today. He was a replacement after McCutchen was scratched due to a sore neck. Matt Diaz, who played left today, was originally slated to be the right fielder.


Update: McCutchen scratched


CHICAGO — Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen was scratched from the lineup today due to neck stiffness. Jose Tabata will start in center field, with Matt Diaz in left and Garrett Jones in right.

Before the game, McCutchen convinced the coaches to keep him in the lineup, even though he clearly was in a lot of discomfort. He was scratched about a half-hour before the start of the game.

There is no immediate word — nor do we expect to get one from the Pirates, who have become increasinly close-lipped about anything relating to injuries — about how much time McCutchen may miss.


Pregame: Cutch sore, but will play



CHICAGO — There was some discussion this morning about keeping Andrew McCutchen, whose neck is stiff and painful, out of the lineup. But McCutchen told the coaches he’s OK to play, so he’s in the lineup

“My neck’s a little sore,” McCutchen told me after spending a few minutes in the trainer’s room. “It’s from diving on that cement out there (in the outfield).”

The warning track and outfield at Wrigley Field are notoriously rock-hard. McCutchen plays all-out, and missed six games last season with neck pain after making a diving catch.

»»» The Cubs were aggressive at the plate Saturday and that made the job easier for Pirates starter Paul Maholm. The lefty tossed 6 2/3 scoreless innings, gave up five hits and two walks and struck out three.

“For me, it was be aggressive, keep (the ball) down and let the defense work,” Maholm said. “Just go at them.”

Third baseman Pedro Alvarez struggled in the field Friday in the season opener. He failed to catch two pop-ups, made a throwing error and couldn’t corral a hard grounder.

However, Alvarez made a quick turnaround Saturday. He was dazzling defensively in the sixth inning, with the Pirates clinging to a two-run lead.

Jeff Baker led off with a double. Left fielder Jose Tabata played the carom off the wall well and made a strong throw, but the ball short-hopped second baseman Neil Walker and Baker was safe.

Speedy Starlin Castro lashed a grounder between third and short. While on the run, Alvarez picked the ball cleanly, looked Baker back to second and fired a strike to get Castro.

Marlon Byrd followed with another hard ground ball toward third. Alvarez slid on one knee to make the stop and made another accurate throw.

Aramis Ramirez walked, putting runners on the corners with two outs. But Geovany Soto hit a hopper to Alvarez, who calmly threw to second base to force Ramirez and end the inning.

“I have confidence in every one of those guys out there,” Maholm said. “That’s my game. I’m going to get ground balls and let those guys work. Those guys picked me up.”

»»» Alfonso Soriano was in an 0-for-7 funk until the eighth inning Saturday, when he lined a two-out, game-tying single off Evan Meek.

Lineups for this afternoon’s game:

Pirates (1-1) – 1. Jose Tabata lf, 2. Neil Walker 2b, 3. Andrew McCutchen, 4. Lyle Overbay 1b, 5. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 6. Matt Diaz rf, 7. Jason Jaramillo c, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Ross Ohlendorf, rhp

Cubs (1-1) – 1. Starlin Castro ss, 2. Darwin Barney 2b, 3. Marlon Byrd cf, 4. Aramis Ramirez 3b, 5. Carlos Pena 1b, 6. Geovany Soto c, 7. Alfonso Soriano lf, 8. Tyler Colvin rf, 9. Matt Garza, rhp


Pregame: A road win!


CHICAGO — There’s some gravy on yesterday’s 6-3 win against the Cubs on Opening Day: It happened away from PNC Park. Remember, the Pirates won just 17 road games last season.

“It’s always good to start off the season 1-0, especially when we’re on the road,” Andrew McCutchen said. “That’s another big bonus for us right there. We’ll live off that, glow off that a little bit then get ready and do it again (today).”

The Pirates have not opened a season with two straight road wins since 2007, when they swept a three-game set in Houston.

»»» Manager Clint Hurdle didn’t really give a Knute Rockne-type speech before the opener. Instead, he had a private sit-down with the team Thursday.

“We just talked about the fact that we’re going to be on the bottom of everybody’s list, we’re going to be the team that has to do things the right way,” Neil Walker said. “We’re not going to be able to rely on home runs to get us out of jams, or for starting pitching to go eight innings every single game. We’re going to have to really lock it up on a nightly basis, really focus on grinding it out. We’re going to have to have a grinder’s mentality. That’s the way it’s going to have to be.”

Most prognosticators picked the Pirates to finish either fifth or sixth in the NL Central

“They have a reason not to talk about us right now,” McCutchen said. “We have to change it around. We don’t listen to what everyone else says. We just focus on what’s in front of us.”

»»» Ryan Doumit is behind the plate again today, but Hurdle said Jason Jaramillo will catch Sunday with Ross Ohlendorf on the hill. Doumit will start the first two games in St. Louis.

»»» Walker has hit safely in all 10 games in his career against the Cubs, going 17 for 36 (.472) with six doubles, four homers and 11 RBI. … McCutchenhas reached base safely in each of his past 17 games against the Cubs, going 27 for 63 (.429) with four doubles, three triples, two homers, 12 walks, six stolen bases and 12 RBI.

Lineups for this afternoon’s game:

Pirates (1-0) – 1. Jose Tabata lf, 2. Neil Walker 2b, 3. Andrew McCutchen, 4. Lyle Overbay 1b, 5. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 6. Ryan Doumit c, 7. Garrett Jones rf, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Paul Maholm, lhp

Cubs (0-1) – 1. Jeff Baker 2b, .2 Starlin Castro ss, 3. Marlon Byrd cf, 4. Aramis Ramirez 3b, 5. Geovany Soto c, 6. Carlos Pena 1b, 7. Alfonso Soriano lf, 8. Tyler Colvin rf, 9. Carlos Zambrano, rhp


Postgame: Walker’s big blast


CHICAGO — Neil Walker liked his chances in the fifth inning today against Ryan Dempster. There were two outs, the bases were loaded and the Pirates trailed, 2-0.

“I knew it was the first time he’d been in trouble during the game,” Walker said. “He’d just walked Jose (Tabata). I didn’t want to try to do too much. I wasn’t up there looking for one pitch.”

Walker struck out swinging in his first at-bat, then flew out to right in his second try against Dempster.

“His stuff was sharp, my first two at-bats,” Walker said. “He just kind of lost a little bit of control. I wasn’t looking for fastballs. I was looking to get the foot down and use the big part of the field. When I got to a 3-2 count, I knew he didn’t want to walk me.”

Walker fouled off a good cutter, then blasted a four-seamer for his first career grand slam.

“It was a big league at-bat at the right time,” manager Clint Hurdle said.


»»» Hurdle perfectly summed up the pitchers’ performance: “We pitched better than they did today. It was good to see our core group (Evan Meek, Joel Hanrahan) be involved. And it was good to see a guy we brought in from the outside (Kevin Correia) get off to a good start.”

»»» My good friend Marty Caridi texted me after the game that Hanny hit 100 mph on the gun. I checked the stats, and it didn’t show any triple-digit fastballs. However, Hanrahan was consistently around 98 mph and did hurl one at 99 mph. It was his second-to-last pitch of the game, and Aramis Ramirez took it … for a ball. Still, 99 mph — very impressive.

»»» One big difference about the lineup this year is an increased threat of power, even from some possibly unlikely sources. Walker and Andrew McCutchen each went deep today, giving them a combined total of 51 homers in the majors. Garret Jones, Pedro Alvarez and Lyle Overbay also are legit threats to knock one out. It’s a huge help for the pitching staff.

“Having guys like that, that you know have that ability, it puts a lot of pressure on (the other team) and it gives you a lot of confidence to keep going out there and putting up zeros.” Correia said.


Pregame: Opening Day 2011



CHICAGO — Happy Opening Day, everyone. The sun rose on a gray morning in Chicago — it’ll be chilly with a chance for rain — but the game will be played this afternoon, and it oughta be a party on the North Side. An anouncer on WGN radio jus advised folks going to Wrigleyville today to be sure to find a designated driver.

Right-hander Kevin Correia this afternoon will begin his ninth season in the majors by making his first Opening Day start. Correia is a laid-back guy — hey, he’s from San Diego, remember? — so it’s not surprising he’s keeping everything in perspective.

“It’s a pretty important game just because it’s Opening Day, but later in the season, you get in games that mean a lot more,” Correia said. “But with the whole hoopla of everybody that comes out for the start of the baseball season, it’s definitely one of the most exciting games that I’ll pitch in my career.”

The Pirates have won their past four season openers. Of course, that hasn’t kept them from extending the streak of sub-.500 seasons to 18.

“You don’t set the tone in the first series, but it’s nice to get off to a good start,” Correia said. “It kind of gets your confidence rolling at the start of the season, and that’s very important. If you start losing games, it’s not conducive to get on a good streak.”

»»» Manager Clint Hurdle’s advice for Correia: “Just have some fun with it. Channel the energy and the adrenaline and embrace it. Go make a good pitch, then go make another one.”

Lineups for the season opener:

Pirates – 1. Jose Tabata lf, 2. Neil Walker 2b, 3. Andrew McCutchen, 4. Lyle Overbay 1b, 5. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 6. Ryan Doumit c, 7. Garrett Jones rf, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Kevin Correia, rhp

Cubs – 1. Kosuke Fukudome rf, .2 Starlin Castro ss, .3 Marlon Byrd cf, 4. Aramis Ramirez 3b, 5. Carlos Pena 1b, 6. Geovany Soto c, 7. Alfonso Soriano lf, 8. Darwin Barney 2b, 9. Ryan Dempster, rhp