A Couple of Great Opening Day Debuts

Considering it’s been over a month since my last post (maybe two) I figured Opening Day for the Pirates would be a good way to start back on the path to being a responsible blogger. Obviously, that path will be quite a long one for me, seeing as how I’ve never necessarily been “responsible” as a blogger since the beginning.

Anyway, Monday was my first Major League season opener as a member of the media. My esteemed colleague Joe Heckel and I covered the game with live updates online for ThePittsburghChannel.com while the Buccos clubbed the Dodgers, 11-5. We got seats on the front row of the press box and trust me when I say we could see everything.

The experience was probably more exciting than the game itself, considering we were on the field and saw everything that happened during the pre-game ceremony:

  • Andrew McCutchen honored as the 2009 Baseball America Rookie of the Year
  • The McMutrie sisters, Jamie and Ali, threw out the first pitch before the game (which I actually caught when Ali’s throw sailed over Jamie’s head and bounced into the media throng)
  • I had the chance to interview Jamie and Ali for Channel 4 before going onto the field, where they told us what they’ve been up to since they’ve been back in Pittsburgh, their plans to return to Haiti and rebuild, and their nervousness about throwing off the mound. Ladies, you did better than some specific grown men have.
  • Jamie and Ali brought Fredo, one of the children from their orphanage in Haiti, down to the field. The Pirate Parrot tried to say hi, but poor Fredo was scared and cried hysterically. (It’s hard out here for a mascot these days…)
  • The national anthem was sang by Jackie Evancho, a 9-year-old from Pine-Richland whom I personally told, “God bless you,” before she went out to sing. (Not because I’m the openly-blessing type; she sneezed.) I don’t know of many girls her age that can sing in front of nearly 40,000 people and remain totally composed, but she did. And she did an outstanding job.
  • Moon Township native and country music artist Sarah Marince sang “God Bless America,” also another impressive rendition. I’m not a country music fan or an industry expert by any stretch of the imagination, but for a 19-year-old, she has quite the future ahead of her.
  • I got pictures of everything and you can see them in the photo album on my Facebook page.

The game itself was quite fun to watch, too, given the Pirates hit three home runs combined and seven of their ten hits went for extra bases. Zach Duke pitched a pretty impressive game, giving up only two runs in five innings. What’s m0re impressive is he overcame a two-run first inning by putting up zeroes the rest of the way. Of course, two home runs in three innings by Garrett Jones to give him the lead back didn’t hurt. Nor did a five-run fifth inning that gave him a six-run lead when he left the game and a virtual assurance he would be the winning pitcher.

My man had a rough day with little Fredo...

In encompassing fashion, here’s everything I took away from the game:

  • If you didn’t believe in Garrett Jones after the season he put up last year, it’s not too late to get on board. The Legend cranked a 1-2 fastball 456 feet into the Allegheny River on a bounce and poked another one opposite field for home runs in his first ever Major League Opening Day. (That’s right, two legends both rocked it in their first professional home openers. *wink, wink*) The way he approaches hitting and has refined his swing makeĀ  you realize three things: a) he’s a legitimate threat with one swing of the bat, b) the Pirates haven’t had one of those since Brian Giles, and c) you don’t always need to look at minor league numbers to figure it out. Sometimes players get to The Show and just figure it out, and the Pirates were due to land a guy who fit that scenario.
  • Aki Iwamura leading off in the lineup may not be the best idea to some people, but it worked the very first time around. He worked a five-pitch walk without swinging his bat, and he was on first base when Jones flicked the ball out of the building and tied the game up. He takes pitches and tries to get himself on base. You need a guy like that in your lineup.
  • Speaking of things that worked, remember how people thought John Russell was crazy for batting the pitcher eighth and said it would never work? Well check this out: it worked twice. The first time was in the second inning when Jeff Clement led off with a single and Andy LaRoche was hit by a pitch afterward. Duke came up third and laid down a sacrifice bunt that Russell Martin dropped to load the bases with no outs. The only part about it that didn’t work was that Ronny Cedeno grounded into a double play and ruined the whole setup (we’ll get into why I don’t think Cedeno will last at a later date).
  • The other time it worked was in the bottom of the fifth when Duke was due up with two outs and the bases loaded. The decision was made to pinch-hit Ryan Church with the opportunity to drive in at least one run and expand their lead. Church, a left-hander facing right-handed Ramon Ortiz, lined a 2-0 fastball into the gap for a three-run single that busted the game open. Had Cedeno batted eighth, Church wouldn’t have been inserted as a pinch hitter, and considering Cedeno’s .232/.292/.360 line with runners in scoring position, they probably wouldn’t have gotten to Duke in the ninth spot anyway.
  • FACT: After Church’s RBI double, I literally wrote “CHUUUUUUUUUUUUCH” on the live blog. Admit it: you wish you had thought of it.
  • The Pirates bullpen is markedly better this season than last season. Did you see Brendan Donnelly get two strikeouts in the eighth to strand runners on second and third? That’s why the Pirates signed him: because he strikes guys out.
  • Speaking of guys who strike guys out, did you see new closer Octavio Dotel totally dismantle Matt Kemp with three fastballs looking in the top of the ninth? The speeds of those: 93, 94, and 94, all beautifully placed on the outside corner. Sorry, folks, but Matt Capps couldn’t do that with a wider home plate.

The biggest thing I took from this game is that this team has a different attitude than the ones that have recently preceded it. They didn’t panic when they were down to runs after the first half inning. They made efforts to play a team-oriented game. They have made statements that give the impression that they genuinely believe in each other and believe they can win.

Will it play out over time? More than likely not; the odds just don’t look that good.

But games aren’t decided by odds. They’re decided on the field. After all, what were the odds of the Pirates scoring a team Opening Day record 11 runs against a team that won a division championship and made it to the NLCS last year?

Am I saying that you should put the champagne on ice in early April? Of course not. Just that this team just might be better than people (including myself) think.

All that being said, this was a lengthier post than I originally set out for. Consider it making up for lost time.