McLouth in doubt


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.

Pitching and defense


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.”

Snell’s struggles


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.

Bring on Baltimore!


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!


Bucs and birds


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 …