I know that I occasionally lean on the “this is my life as an out-of-Pittsburgh Pirate fan in 2012″ anecdotes a little heavily, but I’m kicking this recap off with one tonight. Despite my Debbie Downer routine earlier this week, I was pretty legitimately excited about the biggest Pirate game of 2012 being televised on ESPN. There wasn’t any particular reason for it; I have MLB.tv and a Roku box and a nice computer screen and so I watch almost every Pirate game. I just liked the idea of the ESPN broadcast as validation that things are different with Pirate baseball this year.
And so of course my work in lab this afternoon piled up and things didn’t go quite like I expected them to (I’m going to be back in Pittsburgh for a long weekend over the holiday, so I have quite a few things on my to-do list in lab this week) and I found myself going back into lab as the first pitch was being thrown. Finishing up in lab and running a couple of quick errands left me in the car with Garrett Jones at the plate and Travis Snider on third base in the third inning. Greg Brown and Steve Blass wondered if Joe Kelly was going to pitch to Jones or Pedro Alvarez in that situation. I thought it seemed like a funny question with the havoc that Alvarez has wreaked on the Cardinals this year, but the Cardinals pretty quickly started working around Jones. Kelly got ahead of Alvarez on the first pitch, but then the count swung back in Pedro’s favor. 1-1, 2-1, 3-1. I pulled into my driveway just as ball three crossed the plate, and knowing that the delay on the phone app meant that whatever I was hearing was probably a minute in the past already, I knew that I had to stay in the car for the rest of the at-bat. There was just a split second between when Brown announced that Kelly was delivering his 3-1 pitch and his home run call, but in that split second I heard both the crack of the bat and the crowd roar. I knew what was coming next before the home run call even started. It was an incredible rush.
I’ve felt for a long time that Pirate fans give Pedro Alvarez a pretty hard time based on all of the drama that surrounded his contract signing and that I’m not entirely certain it’s deserved. When I was at spring training in 2010, I remember watching Pedro struggle in a game in Bradenton, getting in the car with my family, driving back to Fort Myers (over an hour) and realizing while I was working on my recap post for the day that Pedro was still in the cages at McKechnie taking batting practice with Clint Hurdle. What’s always struck me about Alvarez is that it always seems like he takes every single out that he makes hard. That means that it seems like he beats himself up when he makes an out whether it’s in the first inning of a 0-0 game or the ninth inning with the tying run on base; whether he’s gone 4-for-4 and he strikes out in his fifth at-bat or he’s caught in an 0-for-12 slump. Alvarez wants to be the guy that comes through for the Pirates, but to this point in his career he’s had trouble hitting his stride. It always seems to me like he takes that way harder than any Pirate fan ever could.
That means that I’m not sure I ever remember being happier for an athlete over a performance than I am for Pedro Alvarez right now. With their loss on Monday, the Pirates were backed up to the wall and playing bad baseball and facing what was, for all intents and purposes, elimination from the playoff race. James McDonald and Wandy Rodriguez responded with two huge starts that kept the Cardinals off of the scoreboard for two straight nights, but it was Alvarez’s bat that lead the 14-run barrage over those two nights. Since 2008 everyone has been waiting for Alvarez to become The Man; Pirate fans and the Pirates and Alvarez himself all put huge expectations on #24, and it creates a pretty harsh feedback loop when he’s not succeeding. With the 2012 season on the line, though, it was Alvarez that delivered. His performance last night was what kept my in the car listening to my phone this evening and his subseqent homer is what really re-ignited the 2012 Pirates’ playoff chances, as far as I’m concerned. There’s a lot of season left and a lot of evaluating to be done with Alvarez when we get to that point, but when I think back to August 15, 2008, and the way that Pirate fans sat hunched over their computer waiting for news of Alvarez’s signing and rejoicing when word came that he’d signed, I’m pretty sure that his performance in these two games is exactly what we were all envisioning that night.
And for a second night in a row I feel like I’m making a big deal out of Alvarez when there’s a whole team that needs discussed. Wandy Rodriguez’s Pirate career got off to a tough start, but he gutted out six shutout innings tonight to help Alvarez’s homer stand out as a key moment. Rodriguez hasn’t been great as a Pirate, but his two best moments (this start and his two inning relief stint to close out the 19-inning game) have been absolutely huge performances when the Pirates need him. Hopefully a start like this will help him settle in as a Pirate and we’ll see more of this Wandy as September starts.
On Monday night, the Pirates were three games out of a playoff spot, needing two big performances against the Cardinals to keep their playoff hopes alive. They responded with two wins by a combined total of 14-0. There’s a lot of important baseball left to be played in 2012, and now we can be sure that some of it will involve the Pittsburgh Pirates.