Record/Position/Streak: 24-33, 4th in NL Central (7.5 GB), L2 (4-6 in last 10)
Scheduled Starters: Tuesday, Shawn Chacon (1-0, 2.84) vs. Mike Bacsik (1-1, 2.29); Wednesday, Zach Duke (2-6, 5.73) vs. Micah Bowie (2-2, 4.11); Thursday, Ian Snell (5-4, 2.94) vs. Matt Chico (3-4, 5.14)
In the heart of every idealist is a cynic yearning to be free. If one were to let that cynical side guide thoughts concerning "The Plan," then it would invariably point to the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that has cycled through multiple stated rebuilding plans, any number of super-high draft picks, and yes, even a beautiful new ballpark, all to little productive end. Notice I am not saying one's reasonable analysis of the Nats would lead one to think of the Buccos, only one's cynical side. And with good cause. There's plenty there to be cynical about, what with that franchise having failed to secure even a .500 season since the moment Barry Bonds scooted out of town after his twelve-hopper failed to beat Sid Bream to the plate.
Yet, obscured by successive win totals of 75, 53 (strike year), 58 (sorta strike year), 73, 79, 69, 78, 69, 62, 72, 75, 72, 67, and 67, the Pirates franchise has happened upon an anniversary of sorts. It's the ten-year anniversary of the 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates, the last Bucco contender.
So as not to confuse, let me be clear that there are two commonly accepted definitions for "contender," and the '97 Pirates satisfied only one of them. The first is a team of high quality that could reasonably be expected to compete in its division/league/conference, and this definition certainly doesn't apply. The second is a team actually engaged in the act of competing for its division/league/conference; strangely enough, this one does apply, even though the '97 Pirates went 79-83. In a weak NL Central, they finished in second place, sandwiched between the division-champion Houston Astros and the Jim Bowdified Cincinnati Reds. And this wasn't one of those deals like, say, the 1995 AL Central, where the division champion smoked the field, leaving even the second place team staggering in a wake.
For much of the 1997 season, the Astros and Pirates engaged in a spirited albeit mediocre tussle for the division's top spot; at any given time, the team that nudged its nose slightly above break-even led, with the other just on its tail, so to speak. At the end of April, the Astros (15-11) led the Pirates by 2.5 games. By mid-May, the Pirates (21-18) led the Astros by a half-game. Ten years ago today, June 5, 1997, the Pirates (29-29) held a half-game lead on Houston. At the all-star break, Pittsburgh (43-43) led by a game.
Houston briefly but convincingly caught fire, winning 16 out of 21 contests to start the second half and stake a six-game lead over Pittsburgh by August 15. The Pirates never quite recovered, though they never quit. By September 1, Houston's lead had shrunk to 2.5 games, where it remained a week later. By September 15, the lead had grown by a game, where it remained a week later. The Astros ended up claiming the division by four games.
Counting the Pirates,
five four National League teams have failed to make the postseason since the start of the wild card era ( four, if we fudge in honor of Bodes and count Cincy's wild card elimination game appearance in '99 see below), and I wonder if, in a sense, 1997 was a missed opportunity to ensure all NL teams will have made the playoffs in the near future. Somewhat inexplicably, Philadelphia has not made the postseason since '93, the year before the expanded divisional/wild card arrangement was set, despite contending several times since 2001. Fluke start or not, Milwaukee has a very solid core of young talent and seems well-positioned to claim an NL Central not dissimilar to the one from ten years ago (before the Brewers flipped leagues, incidentally). If we continue to fudge on the Reds [Note: My apologies to Bodes; the Reds' 1995 playoff appearance totally slipped my mind], then that leaves us with the Nats(pos) and the Pirates. However long "The Plan" might take to execute, what are the odds Pittsburgh makes the playoffs before Washington? Not tremendously great, I would hope.
So, here's to the 1997 Pirates, the team that could-have-been. Here's to Kevin Young, the failed prospect who returned to Pittsburgh and surprise everyone with a mid-800s OPS. Here's to (briefly) former Nat Tony Womack, who swiped 60 bases. Here's to upstart shortstop Kevin Polcovich -- a name I'm sure we all readily recall, right? -- who put up one of the more retrospectively surprising .350 OBPs I've seen, then hit .189 on his way out of the big leagues the next season. Here's to Al Martin, who was still several years away from doing something embarrassing, though I can't remember what that was at the moment. Here's to Jermaine Allensworth, who never panned out, and here's to Dale Sveum, who hit a fluke 25 homers ten years before that. And here's to a lively bench like by Mark Smith and Turner Ward (who hit .353) and Kevin Elster and sort of former Nat Keith Osik and the Browns -- Adrian and Emil -- and Midre Cummings and big old Eddie Williams and a little bit of Shawon Dunston and Abrahan Nunez (no, the other one, depending on your point of view), and Lou Collier, who I might add was once traded straight-up for Jason Bay. And here's to pitchers like Frankie Cordova and pre-better-things-in-store Jon Lieber and Jason Schmidt and Steve Cooke and Richardo Rincon (who was yet to make his best contribution, for Brian Giles) and Rich Loiselle, the closer because they had to have a closer.
And here's to Jose Guillen and Esteban Loaiza, two guys who had no idea they would be inaugural Washington Nats years later.
* * * *
May revelation Mike Bacsik takes a June turn and no doubt prays the slipper still fits, or the clock hasn't hit midnight, or the stuff hasn't hit the fan. Bacsik, who is not a former 1997 Pittsburgh Pirate, has given the team three nice turns in the rotation. He's already a success no matter what he does going forward.
Is it just me, or does the team seem more under control with the rotation replacements on the mound -- or at least the non-Speigner ones? I'd suppose that is because they are more under control. Since returning from his tweaky groin, Jason Simontacchi has walked eight batters in 29 innings. Since trying on his own glass slipper, Micah Bowie has walked four batters in 13.2 innings. And, since his contract was purchased from Columbus a couple weeks ago, Bacsik has walked three batters in 19.2 innings pitched. Add it all up, and you get 17 walks in 62.1 innings pitched, a very nice rate.
Now, walk rate isn't everything, and other rates -- such as Bacsik's strikeout rate -- are also worth review. But walk rate is certainly important, and compare one walk every 3.2 or so innings with the rates those guys replaced.