DK'S GRIND

Kovacevic: Script needs rewrite in raging hurry

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Francisco Cervelli beats Yadier Molina's tag in the first inning Monday at PNC Park. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Baseball's a game of emotion. It's always been that.

So when Francisco Cervelli slides into home, his arms playfully sprayed wide with a simulated safe sign before the actual call, that's always been there. From those moonlighting coal-miners of the original Alleghenys in 1887 to Honus Wagner to Pie Traynor to Willie Stargell and beyond, that's always been there every time they've touched the plate.

And when Chris Archer strikes out one of the National League's premier hitters, his dreadlocks whipping around with a demonstrative point, then performs a backpedaled sprint to the dugout ...

[caption id="attachment_799808" align="aligncenter" width="640"] MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

... that's always been there, too. From Babe Adams to Bob Friend to the most mild-mannered Cy Young winner in history, Doug Drabek, that's always been there for every K.

And when Keone Kela strands the bases loaded in the seventh with his own critical K, his right fist pumping and scream pulsating toward Cervelli ...

[caption id="attachment_799795" align="aligncenter" width="640"] MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

... you get it. Always there. ElRoy Face. Goose Gossage. The whole deal.

It just wasn't as visible.

"I feel like it's just connecting with our fans," Kela was telling me after the Pittsburgh Baseball Club opened its 133rd season in our city by falling to the Cardinals, 6-5 in 11 innings, on this sunsplashed but otherwise wintry Monday matinee at PNC Park. "We're enjoying the moment, but we're enjoying it with them. We want to bring that to them all summer."

All summer?

Oh, yeah, almost forgot: These guys are going to rip your heart out all summer. And if that comes across as a copy-and-paste from Cincinnati, so be it. Because so was the outcome and the script itself.

To remind ...

1. They’ll pitch.
2. They’ll hit a little.
3. They’ll defend less.

Archer pitched. He didn't last too long, cut down by a pitch count of 99 through five innings, but he struck out eight and conceded two singles and three walks. As Clint Hurdle ably put it when I brought up Archer, "There was a while where he wasn't letting anyone play." Overall, the Cardinals wound up striking out 17 times in 40 at-bats, or nearly half the time. Richard Rodriguez gave up another multi-run bomb, as he did in Cincinnati, but the rest of the pen did plenty enough to have prevailed.

The hitting was ... little. Three singles, a couple doubles and Colin Moran's huge-at-the-time, go-ahead home run in the eighth that could have used some company.

The defense was ... less. Moran whiffed on two grounders right at him, Adam Frazier froze on a double-play transfer, and Erik Gonzalez did whatever this was:

That's it. That's the script until it's rewritten.

This roster's got fire in its collective heart. I've never had a doubt about that. It's also got flamethrowers on the mound, particularly at the front and back ends. But, barring some significant change -- not from the measly sample size of three games, but from highly reasonable historic expectations of all concerned -- the bats and gloves might render those moot before long. And that's when the season can tread into treacherous territory, even in April, given the strength of the surrounding National League Central.

• Not to pile on, but the next good thing I see from this new shortstop, including Grapefruit ball, will be the first in any facet. Gonzalez has yet to strike a ball with any significant authority, was embarrassingly caught off second base in this game, then committed the above error, a terribly untimely one to open the ninth with a one-run lead.

And if you think that's mean ...

Maybe he's better than this. Maybe he's jittery away from the giant shadow cast in Cleveland by Francisco Lindor. Or maybe the Pirates' penny-pinching priorities prevented them from signing any of the eminently affordable free agents. Or maybe they evaluate other big-league teams' talent about as well as they've evaluated the amateurs for the past decade.

This would be a swell place to begin rewriting that script. Nothing will come of this season without a player at this position.

• What's the solution, though? Jung Ho Kang out of position? And after he asked management in the offseason to stay at third? Or Kevin Newman?

• Management reiterated countless times through the offseason that this would be a defensively upgraded team, but there never was any substance to that beyond their under-the-breath criticisms of Jordy Mercer's range. Around the horn: Jung Ho Kang's a better third baseman than Moran, but no more than marginally so over David Freese. Mercer's about a gazillion times more dependable than what we've seen of Gonzalez. Josh Harrison's far better than Frazier. And Josh Bell's progress at first has been glacial, to be generous.

The catchers are the same, the left fielder and center fielder already are Gold Glovers, and the right fielder's hurt.

Where was this upgrade?

Anyone?

• Speaking of lies ...

This wasn't a sellout. The Pirates announced it as a sellout, claiming 37,336 tickets were sold into circulation, or 1,411 shy of the official PNC Park capacity of 38,747. But the glaringly obvious big swaths of connected empty seats -- in the early innings before people move -- betrayed them pretty badly.

That's up from the 30,186 sold for last year's home opener, but it's still a sign of the continuing disconnect between the franchise and its city that, one, any tickets at all were left and, two, massive discounting went into getting this many here. For example, I've heard the Pirates were offering one free suite for a game later in the season if one purchased $1,500 in tickets for this game. It was basically a giveaway of suites in an attempt to inflate the ticket figures.

• The other part of the script is that we'll all falsely inflate the importance of one play late in a game that, by all rights, should have been decided well beforehand. In this case, Nick Kingham and Cervelli were crossed up -- sorry, but I've got to imagine that's on the pitcher rather than the catcher who had no such issues with anyone else -- in that, as Kingham told me, "I thought it'd be a fastball, and he thought it'd be offspeed."

Which explains this:

Honest mistake, but a mistake nonetheless.

• Archer's slider played upstairs as well as any slider anywhere, prominent in almost all of his eight strikeouts. It's a strange sight, but it was that way in St. Petersburg, too.

"One of the nastiest pitches in the game," Kingham called it.

It might not feel like it at the moment, but nothing could mean more than a healthy, happy Archer emerging from this game. And in case the latter element is in question, this was his reaction to shutting the door on Paul Goldschmidt with his final slider:

And this was his reaction when I asked about that reaction:

• Another positive: Bell came up with runners in scoring position three times, twice got a run home, the other time was hit by a pitch. Both RBIs were cheesy, a three-bouncer to second and a soft sac fly, but the burden there is to get a man across. It's a start, possibly a boost. I get the sense from the young man he could use it.

• Yet another positive:

That, plus Moran's two-run double in the first, wrapped around his defensive mistakes to display -- yet again -- a teasing player in terms of the gulf between his potential and consistency. Any team would deal with the fielding if the bat earns the lineup spot. But it's still unclear if the bat is worth that.

• Through nine full innings, the time of game was four hours, six minutes. That's miserable. Baseball has a big problem. Shaving five seconds off TV commercials won't cure it.

MATT SUNDAY GALLERY

[caption id="attachment_799962" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Pirates vs. Cardinals, PNC Park, April 1, 2019 - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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