Closing Time: Promise from the Pirates

It's been a while since the Pittsburgh faithful had a lot to cheer about during the baseball season. The Pirates haven't seen the playoffs – or a winning record – since Sid Bream and the Braves slid home with the NL Pennant in October, 1992. The Bucs have fluctuated between 67-68 wins for four straight seasons. Former GM Dave Littlefield did all he could to cripple the franchise with a host of bad decisions from 2001-07. The club did build a gem of a ballpark in the middle of the city, but there hasn't been much of a buzz there.

Maybe things are turning for the Bucs in 2009, however; the team is off to a tidy 8-6 start and there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Freddy Sanchez is healthy and sizzling in the No. 2 slot (.367, two homers); Nate McLouth is a star any team would be thrilled to have; Adam LaRoche has been effective in April for once; the Pirates are getting outstanding work from their bullpen; and very quietly, the starting pitching has been super as well.

Jeff Karstens was the latest no-name Pirates starter to take the mound and get the job done Tuesday, holding down the Marlins over six sharp innings (3 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 3 K). It's always difficult to know just how much credit we should give to coaching, but it sure looks like pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and infield guru Perry Hill (also the first-base coach) have made a positive impact. And when the Pirates get a late lead in 2009, it's as good as a win; setup man John Grabow and closer Matt Capps (four saves) have combined for 11 scoreless innings thus far.

The only major downer thus far is the news about slugging catcher Ryan Doumit. He's been diagnosed with a broken right wrist and is expected to miss 8-10 weeks. Unheralded Jason Jaramillo and Robinzon Diaz are left to battle for playing time; neither guy looks like someone you'll want to roster in a mixed league.

Obviously we don't expect the Bucs to win the NL Central, but let's approach it this way – what should their over/under be for 2009 wins? Pass along your fearless forecast in the comments. I'll be very surprised if this club doesn't win at least 70 ballgames; Matt Romig suggested 77 and that sounds like the right number to me. Competitive, interesting baseball looks to be back in Steel City.

Andy Pettitte pitched to contact in Yankee Stadium Tuesday night and lived to tell about it, holding the A's to a pair of runs over seven innings (9 H, 0 BB, 0 K). If you're looking for some straight talk on the new park in the Bronx, check out this excellent piece from colleague Mike Salfino.

Johnny Damon had the only homer of the night and Brett Gardner added his fourth steal of the year (in addition to a 4-1-1-2 line). Mariano Rivera worked a scoreless ninth for his fourth save; he hasn't allowed a run this year.

Break up the Nationals, they've won two straight. Shairon Martis was in and out of jams for most of his six innings, but he got out of the game allowing just three runs. Joel Hanrahan gave us another high-wire act in the ninth, throwing just 7-of-15 pitches for strikes and quickly putting two runners in scoring position before he battled his way out of it. Brian McCann returned for the Braves and apparently is seeing just fine, thank you; he went 0-for-2 with a couple of walks.

I had some Manny Parra interest entering the season but it's quickly evaporating; he was ineffective for the third consecutive start Tuesday, allowing seven hits and five runs at Philadelphia. The lone bright spot for the Brew Crew was Ryan Braun, who busted out of his early-season slump with five hits and a couple of homers.

Maybe this is the year Matt Cain (2-0) pitches in a bit of luck and the Giants actually give him some support. He was able to scatter nine San Diego hits over six innings (2 R, 0 BB, 5 K), while his mates put up six runs against Jake Peavy on the other side. The demoted duo in the San Francisco lineup, Travis Ishikawa and Edgar Renteria, combined for four runs, five hits and seven RBIs (Renteria had the game-breaking hit, a grand-slam in the fourth).

Fred Lewis reached base twice for the hosts and probably has more fantasy value batting first, where he'll, in theory, be free to run more often. Keep an eye on San Diego's Chase Headley, two more hits and a stolen base, and hitting behind Adrian Gonzalez isn't a bad place to be.

If you own Brian Fuentes, you probably won't want to watch him live these days – it's too taxing. He was able to record the save against Detroit Tuesday but it wasn't pretty – he's topping out in the 87-89 range on his fastball, his location comes and goes, and at times he's been downright wild (he walked a batter and hit another in the Tuesday nail-biter). Yes, he did have a couple of strikeouts, albeit the game-ending strike to Ramon Santiago was a spotty call. The best thing you can say about Fuentes right now is that most of the Anaheim bullpen is struggling – it's not like he has an immediate threat to his position.

Manny Corpas got the kind of assignment you want when it's time to close again, a three-run lead in the ninth against Arizona. He allowed a two-out single to Mark Reynolds but otherwise it was a clean turn. Huston Street also worked a scoreless inning – in middle relief – but Jason Grilli didn't have his best stuff, walking a couple of batters in the eighth before Clint Hurdle removed him.

What's gotten into Jarrod Washburn, you ask? I wish I had a good answer for you. But when someone puts together three dazzling turns like he has (3-0, 1.71 ERA, 4 BB, 17 K), it's time to reopen the book and start looking for answers. He's beaten three presumably-decent clubs, too, the Twins, Angels and Rays. I suppose this run might be partially connected to the upgrades the Mariners have made on defense, especially in the outfield, albeit the 17 whiffs belong to Washburn, no one else (nine of them came against Tampa Bay Tuesday night). Do we credit an improved change-up and slider? Or is this merely one of those small-sample flukes that will be emphatically shoved aside when reality takes over? Here's my bottom line: I was intrigued enough to make a free agent purchase in my hometown money league, and I'm going to scout every Washburn pitch Sunday when he gets the Angels again. To be continued . . .

Not an Injury Blog: Xavier Nady (elbow) isn't going to need season-ending surgery, but he's still expected to miss 4-6 weeks due to the partially-torn ligament. … Brandon Webb (shoulder) continues to throw but there's no timetable yet for his return to game action. … Trevor Hoffman (oblique) is on a minor-league rehab assignment and is targeting a Sunday return. … Hideki Matsui (knee) returned to his DH post and had a couple of hits, but he's not going to be able to play the outfield until the middle of the summer at the earliest. … As expected, Joey Devine had elbow surgery Tuesday and is done for the year. … Melvin Mora (hamstring) is taking infield practice but it's possible he'll stay on the disabled list into May. … Mike Pelfrey (forearm) threw batting practice and says he'll be ready to pitch this weekend. … Adam Jones (hamstring) was originally in the Baltimore lineup but the club decided to scratch him at the last minute. … Rickie Weeks (dizziness) left Tuesday's game early after a minor collision but the team insists he's fine.

Speed Round: Another homer and four hits for Victor Martinez, who doesn't look anything like the injured, struggling star we saw in 2008. … Anibal Sanchez recovered from a slow start and wound up going seven quality innings at Pittsburgh (7 H, 3 R,2 BB, 6 K). He only allowed one hit after the third frame. … Frank Francisco worked hard for his second save, getting five out and working around three baserunners. … Kerry Wood allowed a two-run jack to David DeJesus in the ninth, but that's no big deal when you're working with a three-run lead. Wood also fanned a pair. … David Aardsma still hasn't allowed a run in Seattle, and Brandon Morrow looked sharp (14 pitches, 12 strikes) en route to his fourth save. … A hobbling Jose Valverde quickly loaded the bases against the Dodgers – the hobble came from Orlando Hudson's line-drive single – before getting back into form, striking out James Loney and Russell Martin to close things out. … Is the St. Louis bullpen starting to take shape a bit? Jason Motte got the last two outs in the eighth Tuesday (keeping the score tied), and Ryan Franklin worked a 1-2-3 ninth for his third save. Franklin has yet to allow a run over 6.2 innings this year.


Images via AP

What to Read Next