Pivotal start for JVB

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CINCINNATI — This, potentially, is a big start tonight for right-hander John Van Benschoten.

It’s JVB’s first time on the mound in his hometown. It’s a chance for him to show he deserves management’s confidence. It could be an audition to remain with the Pirates, in some capacity, after this season.

For a while, general manager Neal Huntington has referred to JVB as the Pirates’ “first option” if a starter goes down. It’s clear Bryan Bullington no longer figures in the team’s plans. Jimmy Barthmaier flunked his test last week. Ty Taubenheim looked good, but must still show more. Yoslan Herrera is signed through 2009, but, at 27 years old, continues to plod along at Double-A.

Van Benschoten has flamed out before in the majors. If he flops again, he could find himself back at his old Kentucky home (he lives across the river from Great American Ball Park, in Ludlow, Ky.) for longer than just the offseason.

Manager John Russell liked what he saw Saturday, when JVB tossed a scoreless 13th inning against Tampa Bay and wound up with his second career win.

“I’d like him to throw like he did out of the bullpen a little bit more,” Russell said. “It looked like he was a little bit more aggressive (in the ‘pen). We want him to be aggressive to contact, aggressive to the zone.

“We don’t want him to pick at the zone and not always look like it’s a 2-0 or 3-1 count. We want him to get ahead and stay ahead.” It can be a mental thing for a pitcher, attacking the zone better as a reliever than as a starter.

“Sometimes when you start games, you feel like, ‘I’ve got to pitch x-number of innings, x-number of pitches, so there’s a pace I have to have,’ ” Russell said. “We’ve been telling them, from the first inning on you should see how hard you can go for as long as you can go.

“It’s not raring back and overthrowing. It’s getting after it from the first pitch on, and we’ll see where we’re at from there. Nolan Ryan used to say he threw harder as the game went on. Well, he stayed strong the whole game and I think that’s the key.”

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McLouth in doubt

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CINCINNATI — As I drove down here Sunday, I listed to the Rays-Pirates game on the trusty XM radio. When Nate McLouth was taken out of the game in the seventh inning, I wondered if the Pirates would have to deal with yet another disabling injury to a key player.

The initial news was that McLouth had merely banged a few foul balls off his left knee and would be fine. A few hours before today’s game, McLouth’s name was atop the lineup card; but just to be safe, I asked manager John Russell about him. Again, we were told it was no big deal. Bruised, sore, but nothing that would keep him on the bench.

Apparently, however, it was.

McLouth was scratched from the lineup less than an hour before the first pitch was thrown tonight.

McLouth was in the clubhouse before the game, and was not walking with a noticeable limp. But when I wandered over toward him to ask about his knee, McLouth disappeared into the “players only” part of the clubhouse.

So, we’ll have to wait until at least after tonight’s game before getting more answers about McLouth’s status.

If the injury is worse than originally thought, it would be a blow to the Pirates’ offense. If it’s something that would put him on the disabled list, it would be a fatal blow to McLouth’s chances of making the All-Star team.

McLouth was the only Pirates player within shouting distance of the top vote-getters for the All-Star Game. I expect he’d be chosen as a backup and the lone Pirates’ rep. But if he cannot play, then look for Xavier Nady or Jason Bay to get the nod.

All-Star bids will be announced at 2 p.m. Sunday.
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Pitching and defense

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CHICAGO — Not a lot of defensive gems by the Pirates in the first two games of this series against the White Sox.

Tuesday, left fielder Jason Michaels took a few steps in on Jermaine Dye’s liner. The ball went over Michaels’ head for a two-run double. Last night, second baseman Luis Rivas called off first baseman Adam LaRoche for a pop-up, then stumbled and dropped the ball. It went as a two-base error and allowed a run to score.

A local TV station’s promo for today’s game boasted of a “South Side sweep.” Listening to the Chicago beat guys in the press box, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of respect being given to the Pirates.

That’s what happens when you play D like the Keystone Cops.

But more so than the defense, the Pirates’ pitching has been lousy. The Sox have hit seven home runs by seven different players. Carlos Quentin, who hit a 372-foot solo shot last night, is a legit power threat. But Toby Hall? Orlando Cabrera? Brian Anderson?

I talked Wednesday afternoon with GM Neal Huntington, who reiterated there are no “serious conversations … at this time” about sending any of the struggling pitchers down to Indianapolis.

If a starter would be demoted, John Van Benschoten would be called up from Indianapolis.

“John was sharp in his last outing, but he scuffled a bit before that,” Huntington said. Not a ringing endorsement.

Huntington’s assessment of Ian Snell’s start Tuesday against the Sox (four innings, seven runs, nine hits): “He picked and nibbled and gave the White Sox too much respect. His stuff is good enough to get them out.”
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Snell’s struggles

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CHICAGO — I did not see Ian Snell’s most recent victory, when he gave up a run in six innings June 11 against Washington. I was off that day, and only heard bits of the game on my XM radio. So I’ll have to take the word of folks who were at PNC Park, and later told me Snell looked like he had made progress.

I did see Snell throw tonight against the White Sox — all 105 pitches in only four-plus innings. If he had taken a step forward a week ago, he took two backward tonight.

“It seemed like he never could get anything going,” manager John Russell said. “He has been showing that he’s trying to turn the corner. Hopefully, tonight is not a huge setback for him. Too many misfires, getting behind in the count … He’s going to have to get the confidence to throw his pitches down in the zone. Something is off a little bit with him.”

There was a time Snell had the best fastball among the Pirates’ starters and he knew how to set it up. He enjoyed playing mind games with batters — Is the fastball coming now? Maybe, maybe not? Here it is! Oh, you missed it!

Now, Snell seems to be out-thinking himself on the mound. He doesn’t challenge hitters.

“It’s tough to take, but you’ve got to wear it sometimes,” Snell said. “All I can do is look forward to my next start.”

If he gets one.

General manager Neal Huntington already has said he will not hesitate to send any struggling player who has options back to the minors, if it will help spark a turnaround.

Snell still has options. What he doesn’t appear to have right now is confidence.
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Bring on Baltimore!

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BALTIMORE — Why did it take so long for the Pirates to play an interleague series here?

Interleague play began in 1997, and the Orioles played a three-game set in Pittsburgh in 2005. But until this weekend, the Pirates had not been to Charm City for a “real” game — there was a one-game exhibition in spring 2003 — since Game 7 of the 1979 World Series.

That’s way too long.

The fans obviously felt the same way. Plenty of Pirates fans made the five-hour drive from Western Pennsylvania. Hundreds of Pittsburghers-in-exile came in from the Washington D.C. suburbs. Everywhere I turned in the shops, restaurants and attractions in the Inner Harbor, I saw folks wearing black and gold.

As I type this, I’m watching a teen-aged girl sitting in the section below the press box trying to figure out how to put a Pirates babushka– a disco-era relic, judging by its “handsome pirate” logo — on her head. The atmosphere in the first two games was electric. When Adam LaRoche smacked a two-run, go-ahead homer in the ninth inning last night, the cheers were so loud, I thought we were on the North Shore.

These two franchises share a relatively recent history of World Series confrontations. They boast beautiful ballparks nestled in vibrant, interesting hometowns. They both have passionate fans willing to make a little trek and earn a few Marriott points to watch baseball.

All the ingredients are in place, so why not play this interleague series every year? Or at least two out of every three? It makes a lot more sense for the Pirates than interleague games against the Tigers, Royals, Twins, Blue Jays, Rays … blah blah blah. If MLB wants to make interleague play a true success, it has to work for every team. If MLB won’t give us a chance to boo Cleveland every June, then bring on Baltimore!

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Bucs and birds

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BALTIMORE — I lived in Maryland for nearly seven years after graduating college, so I can tell you for certain there are a lot of former Pittsburghers down here.

There’s a pretty heavy black-and-gold presence here at tonight’s interleague game against the Orioles. It’s the first meaningful game the Pirates have played in Baltimore since Oct. 17, 1979 — and we all know how that one turned out.

The Orioles decided to commemorate the ’79 World Series by wearing their retro hats with the cartoon bird tonight. The original plan was for both teams to wear throwback uniforms, but — oops! — the Pirates were never informed.

Before the game, Earl Weaver, Scott McGregor, Doug DeCinces and Grant Jackson were introduced on the field. Meanwhile, a fan wearing one of the Pirates’ yellow pillbox hats walked around the box seat area carrying a sign. The front of it read, “So fine in ’79” and the back read, “We were family.”

I went to a lot of O’s games at Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards, and I always thought Pirates fans and Orioles fans were a lot alike — blue-collar folks, passionate about their teams, used to seeing things done the right way on the field. They still have a lot in common, but for some of the wrong reasons. Neither team has been successful the past decade (15 years, in the Pirates’ case) and both came into tonight one game under .500.

Who reaches mediocrity first? We’ll find out in the next two hours or so. The Pirates went down 1-2-3 in the first inning. Brian Roberts just led off with a double for the Birds …
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Pride, passion … and pitching

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CINCINNATI — When the Pirates hired Jeff Andrews as pitching coach, I said it might be the most important offseason move the team made — bigger than bringing in John Russell, more crucial than any free-agent signing they made or could have made.

The consensus about Andrews was that his familiarity with most of the Pirates’ starting rotation — he mentored Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Zach Duke and Paul Maholm in the minors — was a great thing. Familiarity leads to easy communication which leads to success.

At least, you would think.

However, of those four pitchers, only Duke has made significant progress this season. Snell and Gorzelanny appear to have taken huge steps back.

I talked with Andrews before and after last night’s game against the Reds, trying to get a read on what is wrong with the top two starters. As you can expect, Andrews was far more agitated after the game — Gorzelanny lasted just two-thirds of an inning and gave up six runs.

I get the sense that it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy.

“We’ve tossed too many (bad games) aside,” Andrews said. “That may be part of the problem. Too many, ‘Oh, well, we’ll get ‘em next time.’ We as a pitching staff don’t put enough pressure on ourselves to do what we need to do.

“You hear people say, ‘They’re putting too much pressure on themselves. Too much pressure.’ Well, maybe we’re not putting enough.”

Andrews is not going to attack and alter his pitchers’ mechanics. He’s not going to make them run extra laps or take away their postgame meal. But he is going to question their pride. That’s still something that remains priceless, even in an era when an average player makes more than $1 million a year.

One other side note: Andrews indicated the pitchers are nibbling too much, especially early in the count, starting on the edge of the plate and working outward. He wouldn’t say it aloud — nor will any of the pitchers — but it’s an indication the pitching staff is alarmed by the Pirates’ porous defense.

Freddy Sanchez made a nice relay throw to the plate the other night, but his shoulder still is not 100 percent. Jack Wilson finally got off the DL Tuesday, ending a run of stone-handed fill-ins at shortstop. Overall, the Pirates are the second-worst fielding team in the majors.

If the pitchers don’t trust their defense … and maybe not even themselves … who can they trust?
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Good seats are still available

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My furnace kicked on at 7 o’clock this morning as the kids were getting ready for school. Cripes, I thought, I hate still having to throw money at Dominion Peoples to pay a heating bill in mid-May.

It was a balmy 60 degrees tonight at PNC Park when Paul Maholm threw the first pitch against the Brewers. And, once again, there was practically nobody in the seats.

Through the first 19 home games of the year, the Pirates were averaging 16,284 fans at PNC Park. Their total draw of 309,387 is the lowest in the majors. Al Gore might blame the lousy weather for the Pirates’ attendance woes, but it’s only a small part of the problem.

There are other factors. Night games on school nights. The hockey team across the river is having a nice little postseason run. The allure of fireworks and bobbleheads is fading.

I think it goes deeper than that. Throughout the offseason, there seemed to be less buzz about the Pirates than I had ever noticed since their free-fall of losing seasons began in 1993. Low buzz = low ticket sales.

During spring training, team officials admitted season ticket sales were off, but insisted things would improve. To date, the Pirates have not released any updated ticket sale information — no figures, estimated or actual, and no projections.

PNC Park won’t be three-quarters empty all summer. Eventually, it will warm up. (But tell Gore not to worry; the polar ice caps won’t melt and flood the Mon wharf anytime soon.) If the Pirates continue to hang around .500, folks will get curious. And if the baseball’s bad, well, the mullet-heads will park the park to hear Lynyrd Skynyrd play a show after a game in September.
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A fine VORP … whatever that is

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CHICAGO — At Penn State, I majored in journalism with a minor in political science. I took enough math courses to ensure I’d get my degree, but certainly no more than were necessary. And I have never read one of Bill James’ books cover to cover.

I’m not a numbers guy.

That all being said, every now and then I do enjoy sticking my toe into the ocean of way-too-tedious baseball stats. Take VORP, for instance.

The fine folks at Baseball Prospectus — if you love the minutia of the game, I strongly recommend subscribing to their Web site — define VORP (value over replacement player) as, “the number of runs contributed beyond what a replacement-level player at the same position would contribute if given the same percentage of team plate appearances.”

In other words, how much better your guy is than some other schmuck — not a star player from another team, but rather a callup, backup or free agent — who could play the same position. This is a run-production thing only; defense is not part of the equation.

Generally, a VORP score in the 20s is average. A score in the 60s is outstanding. You should also consider the position — a VORP of 35 for a catcher is worth more than a 35 for, say, a first baseman.

Through the first six weeks of this season, the highest-scoring center fielder in the majors is … Nate McLouth. As of this morning, McLouth’s VORP score is … 22.5

McLouth’s tally is a tad better than Josh Hamilton (20.2). The rest of the top five consists of Aaron Rowand (15.8), Jayson Werth (12.9) and Grady Sizemore (12.5).

McLouth’s score ranks eighth among all players in the majors. The overall leader is Lance Berkman, with a score of 43.4. Xavier Nady (24th, 14.9) and Jason Bay (30th, 13.7) also are among the top 30.
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Another injury

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ST. LOUIS — While covering last night’s Pirates-Cardinals game at Busch Stadium, I also was sneaking peeks at the Penguins-Flyers playoff game on my laptop — no need for Versus; I managed to tap into an Internet video stream of the CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcast. The best of both worlds!

Last night, fireworks went off at Busch Stadium at the precise moment Sidney Crosby fired the Penguins’ first goal of the game. Since the baseball game hadn’t yet begun, the Pittsburgh contingent in the press box — three writers and Pirates media relations poobah Jim Trdinich — wondered if someone at the stadium was a Penguins fan or at least a Western Pennsylvania native (you know how we love pretty lights in the sky).

In fact, the timing of the fireworks and Sid’s goal was merely a fortunate coincidence.

At Busch Stadium, they shoot off three or four fireworks above center field about 20 minutes before the first pitch is scheduled to be thrown. The intent is sort of like dimming the lights in a theater lobby before the curtain goes back up intermission. It’s a cue for the fans to pack up their tailgates, hustle to the restroom or get into the beer queue pronto so they won’t miss the start of the game.

For me, it was a cue to start thinking about how the Stanley Cup Finals against Detroit are going to shape up.

One thing working in the Pens’ favor is how they’ve been able to dodge any serious injuries during their playoff run. Unfortunately, the same is not true for the Pirates so far this season.

Last night, catcher Ryan Doumit went down with a fracture at the tip of his left thumb. The severity of the injury will be determined later today, after Doumit is examined by a hand specialist back in Pittsburgh.

Last night, manager John Russell, a former catcher, said he’d seem that type of injury before and that it usually required 14-21 days out of action. So, if it is just a small break, Doumit could be back in mid-June. However, there is a chance the injury could keep him out of action much longer.

Already this season, Freddy Sanchez continues to battle shoulder pain, Jack Wilson has been out for six weeks with a calf injury, Adam LaRoche has been bothered by a dinged-up thumb, Tom Gorzelanny missed a start because of back pain and Xavier Nady has nursed a sore groin.

Doumit’s mishap tempered the good news out of Bradenton, Fla., where Wilson was told he’ll begin a rehab assignment Thursday with Double-A Altoona. If all goes well, Wilson could be back with the Pirates in a week or so.
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– Rob Biertempfel