Pride, passion … and pitching


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?

Good seats are still available


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.

A fine VORP … whatever that is


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.

Another injury


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.

Nady keeps hustling


Xavier Nady’s sore groin is not stopping him from going all-out when the Pirates need a big play.

Friday night, Nady turned in two top-notch defensive efforts in right field and hustled for an extra-base hit to help the Pirates slip past the Braves, 3-2. The injury slowed Nady early last week, but hasn’t kept him off the field.

“I feel good, a lot better than the past few days,” Nady said.

With one out and Brian McCann at second base, Jeff Francoeur hit a sinking fly ball to shallow right. Nady came in at a full sprint and made a backhanded catch inches above the grass. Nady threw to second and nearly doubled off McCann.

“It’s one of those plays where you hope you’ve gotten a good jump and it’s borderline whether you might have to dive or slide,” Nady said. “The backhand is never your preference for catching it, but fortunately the ball stuck in (the mitt).”

An inning later, Nady crashed into the low fence in foul territory while chasing a pop-up. Nady teetered on the fence, nearly toppling over it, then regained his balance and leaned back onto his feet.

“I didn’t anticipate hitting that wall,” Nady said. “It’s the perfect height that if you hit it, it takes you over. Fortunately, I’m all right.”

With the Braves leading 1-0 in the seventh, Nady ripped a 1-1 pitch from Tom Glavine into the gap in left-center field.

For a moment, it appeared the ball would roll to the North Side Notch — an easy double, maybe more. But center fielder Mark Kotsay quickly tracked it down, spun and fired to second base.

“I played with him for a year (2003 in San Diego), so I knew he was going to make a play on it,” Nady said. “He’s got a good arm, so I was taking a little chance there. It worked.”

Nady kicked it into high gear and slid in safely ahead of the tag. He scored on Freddy Sanchez’s two-out, two-run double.

Michaels in the mix


Is the arrival of Jason Michaels, who was acquired Thursday in a trade for next to nothing, a signal of Jason Bay’s departure? Probably … but not right away.

It’s no secret the Pirates were shopping Bay over the winter but were far less than impressed by the offers they received. Bay’s been hitting well and even is flashing a bit of speed again (more on that in Sunday’s Trib), so his market value is going up. And with every runner stranded on base at Petco Park, the San Diego Padres get a little bit more desperate for a bat.

Yet, I’d be stunned if the Pirates make a move with Bay now. It’s way too early to raise the white flag. They go into tonight’s game against Atlanta just four games under .500, and are about to begin a long stretch of games against NL Central Division foes.

Michaels was in uniform this afternoon, and talked about filling the role of fourth outfielder … happy to be here … hopes to contribute … blah blah blah. He’s a bench player, for now at least.

Check back on that in late July.


Duke, Dumatrait carry the load


Probably the biggest letdown of the Pirates’ season so far is the starting rotation.

Over the past week or so, the two most reliable members of the rotation have been a guy who until Tuesday hadn’t won a game in nearly a year (Zach Duke) and a guy who owns exactly one victory in the majors (Phil Dumatrait).

Tom Gorzelanny has a sore back, which he probably hurt while lugging around his 6.91 ERA. Ian Snell is healthy, but hasn’t been much better. Paul Maholm, who’s pitching against the Giants as I type this, has been inconsistent.

Hey, at least Matt Morris is gone.

The expectations for Duke and Dumatrait were modest coming into this season, and deservedly so. Duke was awful last season and Dumatrait was a punching bag during his brief stint with the Reds last summer.

However, the two lefties are carrying the rotation at the moment. Good thing, because pitching coach Jeff Andrews only has so many fingers to plug holes in the dike. If Duke and Dumatrait can stay the course a while longer, it will buy time for Snell, Gorzelanny (who probably would benefit most from a trip to the DL) and Maholm to turn it around.