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October 13, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Is Stewart an adequate plan B?

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SOUTH HILLS  - I think we all understand Russell Martin is going to be a tough sign unless he gives a discount in years or dollars to the Pirates. And discounts are usually pipedreams in free agency. In an impending free agent class bereft of catchers, Martin stands alone as the only star-level or even starting-caliber talent. The Pirates have never given more than $17 million to a free agent (really) and that free agent was Martin. Martin reportedly turned down a midseason extension offer, according to John Heyman, from the Pirates.

I don’t want to get your Monday started off on a sour note but here is the list of potential 2015 free agent catchers: John Buck, Ryan Doumit, Nick Hundley, Gerald Laird, Martin, Jeff Mathis, Wil Nieves, Ronny Paulino, A.J. Pierzynski, David Ross and Geovany Soto. All of these catchers are deeply flawed outside of Martin, and many are advancing deep into their 30s. Moreover, teams aren’t likely to give away talented catchers with reasonable contracts cheaply in trades.

The good is news is prospects Elias Diaz (ETA 2016) and perhaps Reese McGuire (ETA Mid 2017/Early 2018) are coming. Still, the Pirates need a bridge to that homegrown talent. So if Plan B doesn’t exist in the free agent market what is the Plan B internally?

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October 8, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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“Because those are our seventh-inning guys” … and ticking clocks

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SOUTH HILLS – What was perhaps more amazing than Clayton Kershaw unraveling twice in a week yesterday was that hours apart, in two one-run, elimination-game losses is neither losing manager called upon his best relief pitcher.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly didn’t use his closer – Kenley Jansen – and Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams kept his bullpen quiet in the seventh inning as a rattled rookie pitcher allowed the winning run to score with a wild pitch and the bases loaded.

Kershaw, on short rest, began to miss with location in the seventh, even the broadcasters thought he was tiring. He allowed a three-run homer on a mistake pitch. In the seventh inning in San Francisco, the Nationals’ bullpen remained quiet. Available to Williams, in the season’s pivotal moment were his best relievers Drew Store and Tyler Clippard and even his ace, Stephen Strasburg. None of those arms were summoned. None of those arms were even warming up. Washington Post beat writer Adam Kilgore eloquently described the vacant mounds as “monuments to convention.”

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October 6, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Lessons from 2014

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SOUTH HILLS –  A baseball season is a funny thing. It’s something you live with on a daily basis for six months (seven-plus consecutive months if you’re a player, coach, executive, or even a sports writer) … and then it’s gone in an abrupt manner. Because it’s a daily endeavor, it’s an opportunity to learn something new each day and build a deeper and richer understanding of the sport.

And I’m not sure I’ll ever cover, or if you’ll ever watch, another season like the Pirates’ 2014 campaign.

We don’t get everything right here in this e-space, that’s for sure. My pre-season prediction for the Pirates was this: an 84-78 final record and a third-place finish in the division. The prediction was in the ballpark … but how the Pirates arrived at 88 wins and another playoff berth was surprising to me and many others.  Continue Reading →

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October 2, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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The sound of silence … and what broke that silence

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SOUTH HILLS — As I wrote in my sidebar for today’s print edition, what struck me was the silence.

After Brandon Crawford‘s grand slam last night, Blackout II went silent and Madison Bumgarner kept it silent with a brilliant shutout effort. I wrote going into the game that it was a tale of two advantages: home field vs. a starting pitcher advantage. The problem is an excellent opposing starting pitcher can quiet a crowd — or excite it (see: Johnny Cueto).  It’s up to the home starting pitcher to sustain crowd momentum as Francisco Liriano did last season.

In a way, the Giants were at an advantage despite being on the road as the No. 2 wild card. Because they were eliminated from NL West contention and home-field wild-card contention last week, they were able to hold back Bumgarner, similar to how the Pirates held back Liriano last season. I’m not going to get into second-guessing the Pirates’ decision to pitch Edinson Volquez. We know the importance of having a club’s best arm available for an elimination game. The Giants threw their No. 1, and the Pirates threw their No. 3. But the way Bumgarner was pitching perhaps whoever started for the Pirates is irrelevant.

Bumgarner made it very quiet until the ninth inning.

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September 30, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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Who ya got Wednesday? It’s a tale of two advantages

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PNC PARK — Here’s something that might comfort you: Edinson Volquez is probably a lot more relaxed than you are if you’re a Pirates fan. Volquez has had a loose, energetic, positive personality since the start of spring training, and the only time I saw him really upset is when he was pulled from a start in Philadelphia earlier in September when he still felt like he had something left in the tank.

Volquez was often laughing, joking and flashing a broad smile when he met with reporters Tuesday afternoon. I think it’s a good thing for the Pirates, though in his only postseason start he allowed four runs in 1 2/3 innings to the Phillies in the 2010 NLDS.

“(Francisco Liriano) said he’s a little nervous, and he’s not even pitching,” Volquez said. “(On Monday) I was sleeping the whole day and was chilling in my house.” Continue Reading →

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September 29, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: True North

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CINCINNATI – Clint Hurdle was right. There was no easy choice in making his pitching plan Sunday. But there were those that thought he should have played the probabilities and saved his best starting option, Gerrit Cole, for their next most likely game entering Sunday: the Wild Card game. That play-in game became a reality with the loss. Now it’s a date Wednesday with the San Francisco Giants and Madison Bumgarner at PNC Park.

Cole has always been good on the big stage: from the College World Series to his debut last season to out-dueling Yu Darvish for win No. 82, and his work in the NLDS. Cole has been very good again in September. And he made his best start of the year Sunday when he tied a career best with 12 Ks and allowed one run – no walks – in seven innings. Over his last 21 innings he’s allowed five runs, walked two and struck out 27. At this point, if you could have anyone pitch a game for the Pirates it would be Cole – not Francisco Liriano.

But was Cole’s effort in vain? And was it an effort that could have been saved and stored for Wednesday? Hurdle did not have any easy choice to make but if Edinson Volquez does not deliver Wednesday it will be a decision that is second guessed. The decision was even being first-guessed.

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September 27, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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A tactical retreat

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CINCY –  There is a military strategy known as a tactical retreat.

Not every retreat is a poor decision, a sign of weakness. Sometimes it is prudent and smart, a way to build strength. Sometimes it is a search to find better ground, higher ground, a better fighting position. It might be something for the Pirates are mulling tonight.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was unwilling to discuss his starting pitching plans for Sunday and going forward after Saturday’s loss to the Reds. He indicated the Pirates would wait for the results from Saturday night’s Cardinals game before making a decision on whether to pitch Gerrit Cole. Continue Reading →

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September 26, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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What are Ray Searage and Jim Benedict worth? Plus some weekend plans

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ATLANTA – The Pirates players interestingly chose to have Giants-Redskins and Oklahoma St.-Texas Tech on the clubhouse televisions postgame even as they whittled their wild-card game, home-field advantage magic number down to 2 Thursday. The Giants were in action vs. San Diego.  (Maybe there’s no MLB Extra Innings in the visiting clubhouse).

I bring this up because we live in a football-crazed world where top college assistants now make more than $1 million per season. I came from a place, Clemson, where the offensive coordinator was paid $1.3 million per annum. And you know what? You could argue such coaches were undervalued for so long because of how important scheming and play-calling is and how many college head coaches are CEO/salesman types.

What I’m getting to is this: are baseball assistant coaches undervalued? How valuable is Ray Searage (and Jim Benedict) compared to any other coaches in the entire organization (even the MLB manager). When you can spin gold like Searage and Benedict you’re adding incredible valuable. Have you seen the cost of free agent pitching? These guys are essentially masters at rehabbing and flipping houses.  Continue Reading →

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September 25, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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Final answers revealed in Joe-Ja

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ATLANTA – The Pirates entered Atlanta with only three areas of their roster carrying uncertainty as far as playing time and roster construction in October is concerned. Those areas? Right field, the bullpen bridge, and the No. 4 starter spot.

In Atlanta, I think we’ve received answers on how all three of these areas of various shades of gray will be resolved.

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September 24, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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Same place, another soaked carpet, different mood

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ATLANTA – As the clubhouse opened after last night’s win, the Pirates celebrated wildly as all postseason clinching teams do, exhausting 20 cases of champagne (six bottles in each case – roughly two for every member of the traveling party) in about 20 minutes. The season is a grind and making the baseball postseason – just 33 percent of MLB teams do which is the toughest threshold in North American pro sports –  is an accomplishment.

Oh, and it’s not like the Pirates do this every September 23rd. (Just the last two).

Trib photographer Chris Horner’s trigger finger and Deadspin have you covered on the images but I’ll share one:

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