By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
As victories go, Sunday’s by the Pittsburgh Pirates was as crucial a one as any can be in the first week following the All-Star break.
In a season of six months and 162 games, very few games before September can hold much more meaning than any others, but the situation with the Pittsburgh Pirates had become unique, as unique as baseball’s only 20-year losing streak is.
Here they were coming out of the break as one of only two major league teams playing better than .600 baseball, the only misfortune being that the other team is St. Louis out of the same division.
They had, in recent years, been in somewhat similar situations, playing the first half as if they meant to show themselves ready to contend, only to fall completely apart. This, of course, played games with the Pirates’ mentality and confidence, to say nothing of their fans, most of whom seemed to be sitting back waiting for the annual collapse so they could say, “I told you so.”
And when the Pirates came out of the break losing the first two games to Cincinnati, a division rival many believe is a superior team to the Pirates at face value, there was a lot of head shaking and “here we go again” comments floating across social media, to say nothing of within the area’s local brew pubs.
Runs were as scarce as Pitt fans in Morgantown, and as a hitless streak with runners in scoring position ran its way all the way up to 0-for-29 and Pedro Alvarez, whose power streak had carried the Pirates for almost a month, reached 0-for-14 out of the Home Run Derby he chanced participating in at the risk of throwing his swing and timing out of kilter, the need for a victory magnified.
Just to add to the pressure was an uncalled for statement out of team president Frank Coonelly during an appearance on 93.7 The Fan’s morning show.
When asked what would make this a successful season, Coonelly responded: “The only thing that’s acceptable is the National League Central crown.”
That is like a father telling a son who has just joined the military that he need not come home with anything less than the Congressional Medal of Honor, a rather unrealistic goal that can do nothing but put excessive and unnecessary pressure upon a son or a baseball team.
This is not to say they should feel they have succeeded by contending for a half, but it should not define failure by being unable to win a divisional championship after two decades of being unable to win half the team’s games.
In truth, one wonders why the president of any club, short of George Steinbrenner or Bill Veeck, ever would utter a public statement, an area they would be best served passing on to the general manager and/or manager, who are far more capable of understanding what the team is capable of and what the psychology is within the clubhouse.
Along that line, general manager Neal Huntington, who has done a wonderful job of building this team from nowhere with strong budget restrictions, understands his team is not as talented throughout the roster as many competitors and probably will have to make some moves down the stretch to remain in contention.
“We know the guys we want. We’re willing to stretch where it’s appropriate,” he said Sunday prior to the victory.
And he wanted to make it clear that even though no one was providing clutch hits with runners in scoring position, they were not about to deal from a position of weakness.
“No move might be better than the move just to make a move,” he said. “We absolutely do not have a sense of desperation.”
The truth is that as long as the pitching that has been there all season despite injury after injury holds together, there is no reason to panic over an offense that is spotty.
Baseball teams build confidence through offense, yes. Certainly, it is fun to be a powerhouse of a team, for each day that involves so many more players in the success than does a starting pitcher, setup man and closer in a 3-2 win as was the one against Cincinnati and so many others throughout the year.
But great pitching builds a different kind of confidence, a quieter confidence, but yet one that might even be stronger, for anyone who ever played baseball at a high level knows that pitching is 80 percent of the game.
So, after losing two games, shortstop Jordy Mercer, who ended the long hitless streak with runners in scoring position by providing the hit that made the difference, denied that the team was feeling any different out of the All-Star break.
“We’re the same,” he said, “the same as we have been all year. We’re not going to change. We know we’re good.”
But should they become a wild card rather than the Central champion, or even miss the playoffs but win 88 or 90 games, they surely would be disappointed, but not feeling as if they failed.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.