By Mike DeFabo
Times West Virginian
I have a confession.
Mom, Dad, Grandma, if you’re reading this, for your own sake, stop. I’m about to admit to committing the cardinal sports fan sin, an act so blasphemous some cities punish it by forcing offenders to drink Slurpees until they get a deadly brain freeze, dip you in molten-hot ballpark nacho cheese sauce, pine-tar and feather you.
Brace yourselves: I’ve been cheering for two teams this baseball season.
Now, before you rip up your newspaper and call the Times West Virginian to complain, hear me out for a second.
My first team is the Pirates, has been and always will be. I grew up in Latrobe, Pa., the home of Steelers training camp, rooting for all the Pittsburgh teams — Pirates, Steelers, Penguins, Pittsburgh Passion of the Women’s Football Alliance. I’ve often said my baby blanket was a Terrible Towel and my veins bleed Black and Gold (which might explain why they didn’t let me donate blood last time.)
Judging from the number of Pirates stories my editors ask me to put in the paper, not to mention the signs in Shop ’n Save that say “Home of a Pittsburgh Steelers dog,” I think I’m on the same page as you and your dog Sparky.
But the last time the Pirates had a winning season in 1992, I was 2 years old. While the Buccos were winning the first three NL East titles, I wasn’t watching. I was just trying to make sure that airplane spoon of Cheerios landed in my mouth.
By the time I went to college in 2008, the Pirates were working on their 17th consecutive losing season that spring. I was in Washington, D.C., so naturally I went to a couple Nationals games. At first, they were a lot like the Pirates. Cheap seats in a brand-spanking new empty ballpark. A roster filled with lousy misfits and castoffs. Heck, they even had president mascots race around the park between innings, not unlike the “Great Pittsburgh Pierogi Races,” (n’at).
But over the course of my five years in D.C., I watched the red, white and blue losers transform into the class of the National League. Last season I even got to cover a couple games and meet some of the players.
So how can you fault me for jumping on the bandwagon a little bit?
Before this season, I had expectations for how both my ball clubs would do. I figured one would be at the top of the National League, the other struggling around .500. One would dominate with solid starting pitching and a lock-down bullpen, the other would suffer through inconsistent outings. One would watch its young stars blossom, the other might see them regress.
Well, I was right. My two teams have matched my expectations, just the wrong ones.
Let me explain. In 2012, the Nationals made several significant roster moves including the signing of left-handed pitcher Gio Gonzalez and the debut of highly touted rookie Bryce Harper. It helped the Nationals to their first winning season since moving to Washington in 2005, the NL East crown and the best record in Major League Baseball (98-64.) So naturally, I thought, they would be the ones to turn in a similar performance this season.
Meanwhile, last season the Pirates ... OK, let’s not talk about it. You pretty much needed not one, but two Pirate eyepatches if you planned on watching the second half of the season.
But this year, the teams seem to have traded places (not to be confused with “Trading Spaces,” the hit home makeover show on TLC). Solid starting pitching? Chalk one up for the Buccos, who rank first in team ERA (3.17), saves (32) and shutouts (12) even while ace A.J. Burnett recovers from a torn calf and southpaw Wandy Rodriguez continues to suffer from forearm soreness.
Young stars? The Nationals have watched young pitching phenom Steven Strasburg go from inconsistent to injured while Bryce Harper, the baseball version of Justin Bieber, rehabs after running into a wall.
By contrast, the Pirates have seen Starling Marte become an anchor at the top of the lineup in just his first full season in the big leagues. McCutchen is starting to heat up. And Pedro Alvarez is hitting homers like it’s his job. Well. Come to think of it, he’s a professional baseball player. It is his job. But still! At 26 years old, “El Toro,” as he is called, has 20 bombs and it’s not even July yet.
Most importantly, the Nationals are the ones struggling to stay above the dreaded .500 mark with a 41-40 record. And the Pirates — yes, the 20-year losing streak Pirates — rattled off their ninth straight win Sunday. The 14th inning walk-off propelled the Buccos to 51-30. Last time I checked (and I just checked), that’s the best record in baseball.
Don’t look now (OK, look now), but I might have to dump my second team. Because before you know it, they just might be playing each other in the postseason.
That is, if the Nationals can make it.
Email Mike DeFabo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MikeDeFaboTWV.