Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Yes, Yankees Fans, It's Okay to Root For the Pirates

Yes, I said it. It is okay for Yankees fans to root for the Pittsburgh Pirates this post-season.  However, I will preface my statement...if you under the age of, oh, 55, it is okay to root for the Pirates. If you are over 55, there's a good chance you still harbor ill will against P-Burgh for the 1960 World Series.

I wasn't born yet, so I have never felt any malice towards the Pirates. That being said, I don't like seeing the film of Bill Mazeroski's home run sailing over Yogi Berra's head and over the brick wall in old Forbes Field.

My brother, 9-years old at the time of the '60 series, was mortified when he learned I rooted for the Pirates against the Baltimore Orioles in both the 1971 and 1979 World Series. I hated the Orioles as a kid; they beat the snot out of the Yankees time and time again.

While there wasn't the animosity that exists between the fans of the Yankees and Red Sox (and some players) today, the Orioles did much more damage to the Yankees in the late 1960's and early 1970's than Boston ever did.

The Orioles won the inaugural AL East title when division play began in 1969, and won it again in 1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, and 1979. They won the AL Pennant three times and the World Series once.

But enough about Baltimore, this is about Pittsburgh. This is about a team that had its first winning record in 21 years this season. That's the same length of time since they have been in the post-season. The Pirates lost the NLCS three straight seasons from 1990-1992, twice in the 7th game.

The 1979 team, like the 1971 team, came back from a 3-1 deficit in games to the win the World Series. That was the fifth and final time the Pirates made it to the World Series and won it.

Tonight they enter as the host team for the one game wild card playoff with NL Central division rival Cincinnati. The two teams met in the regular season's final weekend, with the Pirates taking a three game sweep to ensure the first playoff home game since a 7-1 win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 5 of the '92 NLCS. That series ended dramatically with former Pirate Sid Bream just beating a tag at home plate with the winning run after Atlanta rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the bottom of the 9th. (Yes, some young Pirates fans know what it was like to be a young Yankees fans in 1960.) The Pirates also took the season series, 11 games to eight.

Manager Clint Hurdle, one of the front-runners for the NL Manager of the Year award, is in his third year as the Pirates' skipper. Under Hurdle's watch, the team has gone from 72 to 79 to 94 wins. The former Kansas City Royals Sports Illustrated cover boy has only one prior year of playoff managerial experience and that was with the NL pennant winning Colorado Rockies in 2007.

Hurdle's opposing manager, Dusty Baker, helmed the 2002 San Francisco Giants to a World Series title. However, Baker has won only one other playoff series in five additional playoff appearances.

The current squad hopes to get over the next hurdle with a bunch of talented kids and a good mix of veterans, including former Yankees A.J. Burnett and Russell Martin. Burnett led the team in starts (with Jeff Locke), innings pitched, and strikeouts. He is one of four Pirates pitchers that finished with double digit wins, three of which had 10 total, including Burnett.

Martin's numbers were very similar to those he produced with the Yankees. Fans wanted him gone until they saw what Chris Stewart did as a full-time player. Martin came through with walk-off winners in four home games this season and was a big influence on the youngsters.

Pitcher Francisco Liriano, one time known as the "next Johann Santana", looked like his career might done after posting 5+ ERAs in 2011 and 2012. But he resurrected his career in Pittsburgh this season with a career high 16 wins, his most innings pitched (161) since 2010 and his best ERA (3.02) and WHIP (1.224) since 2006. It will be his task Tuesday night to help the Pirates get to the division series when he squares off against the Reds' Johnny Cueto.

With Wandy Rodriguez out due to injury, the Pirates got a big boost when rookie Gerrit Cole was called up in June. Now, Yankees fans can whine about something. Cole was drafted by the interlocking NY in 2008, but he rebuked them. Cole went to UCLA instead and signed with the Pirates after he was the number one pick in the nation in the 2011 MLB amateur draft.

The 23-year old finished the season with a 10-7, 3.22 record in 19 starts and with 100 strikeouts in 117.1 IP. His performance also helped offset Locke's struggles over the last two months of the season.

The biggest star in the Steel City, though, is outfielder Andrew McCutchen. The 26-year old was the 11th overall pick in the 2005 draft and made his MLB debut in 2009. In five big league seasons he produced a slash line average of .296./380/.489, won Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, and made three All-Star appearances.

The five-tool player averaged 20 home runs, 25 steals, and 91 runs scored a season. He led the NL in hits last season with 194 and had 185 this year. Yes, he can do it all and usually does.

He's aided in the lineup by slugging third baseman Pedro Alvarez (tied for NL lead with 36 HR), outfielder Starling Marte (41 steals), power hitting second baseman Neil Walker, and veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd, who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Mets.

Seton Hall product Jason Grilli, a veteran of 11 big league seasons got his first gig as a full-time closer at age 36 and responded with 33 saves in 35 opportunities. He averaged 13.3 strikeouts per nine innings and was named to his first All-Star game.

Mark Melancon (he and Jose Tabata are the final two former Yankees on the active roster) was Grilli's main set up man and filled in as closer when Grilli went down for six weeks with a strained forearm. He remained the closer for a short time even when Grilli returned until the veteran was back at or near 100%. The 28-year old appeared in a career high 72 games, saved 16 of them and averaged just fewer than nine strikeouts per nine innings.

Vin Mazzaro, Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, and Bryan Morris have all been solid out of the pen as well.

When it comes right down to it, the Pirates are a fun team to watch and to root for. There are no ghosts of Pirates past in PNC Park and no annoying choruses of "We are Family" (at least I hope not.) So here is one Yankees fan that hopes the Pirates get past the Reds, the Cardinals, and either the Braves or Dodgers (sorry Donnie Baseball, I hate the Dodgers.) and whatever American League opponent they may run into. The city of Pittsburgh has been waiting a long time for this.

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