It's a game of nines, as Keone Kela was educating me a couple months ago in Houston.
I'll confess I'd never quite thought of that, but damned if he wasn't right: Nine innings, nine players a side, 90 feet between the bases ... heck, rewinding all the way back to the game's first recorded rulebook in the 1850s, the clause that defines that a runner crossing home plate shall be counted as "a run" can be found in ... Section 9.
Well, a lot's changed since then.
No, not since the Civil War, but for these Pirates since Kela and I carried on that afternoon near the end of spring training. For one, the man himself would become one among an absurd 22 different players placed on Major League Baseball's injured list. For another, a season that opened with bona fide hope built on pitching, then wilted with the first wave of those injuries, then was buoyed anew by Josh Bell and some serious collective moxie ... has now seemingly settled into this:
Pretty much the public's expectation, right?
The Brewers, fresh off taking three of four here this weekend, are dueling again with the Cubs. The Cardinals never really go away. The Reds, despite all the rich entertainment offered by Sudden Slugger Derek Dietrich, are back down where they belong. And the Pirates ... are back to being the Pirates.
That has to be damned depressing for this fan base.
So, contrarian ray of sunshine that I am regarding this particular franchise, I'm here on this off-day to humbly offer nine -- naturally -- reasons to smile about the current state of this team:
9. Frazier's about to break out.
Let's lead off with the guy who's no longer at leadoff. And, as Adam Frazier admitted to me Sunday before the 4-2 loss to the Brewers, he actually wished he'd been lifted from leadoff a couple weeks earlier than he was:
"I've been kind of pressing for a few weeks," Frazier told me, candid as ever. "I felt like when I hit the ball good, I got out. When I hit the ball bad, I got out. I try not to be results-oriented, but every time, it kind of adds up."
To the point that Clint Hurdle dropped him all the way to eighth earlier this week. And since then, albeit in a four-game sample, he's gone 5 for 14 with a double, a triple, an RBI and two walks.
The double came Sunday to open the third inning ...
... and he'd soon come around to score. More important, I'd say, it exemplified everything Frazier's focused toward improving in his work with hitting coaches Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz, not least of which has been a slight adjustment of his hands. He stayed back on the ball, went with the ball where it was pitched and swung as if he intended harm.
"That's really it," Frazier said. "Go with what you get. Don't try to force it."
He's one piece out of the everyday eight, but he's been a big one to be missing, still stuck at a .257/.316/.367 line that's well below his career .276/.340/.411. I couldn't be more confident he'll bounce back, maybe even to leadoff.
8. The catchers will catch fire.
No single facet to this season has been more disappointing -- other than the injuries and the chasm at shortstop until Kevin Newman's recent surge -- than the majors' top offensive catching tandem from 2018 has to date been the collective opposite. Elias Diaz is heating up of late, batting .370 over his past 15 games, but Francisco Cervelli's stuck at .194 while now on the concussion list yet again.
They're both better than they've been, but particularly Cervelli. He should have been an All-Star in 2018 for both his offense and his defense, and I'm not willing to accept that someone of his pedigree and passion is plunging off a career cliff at age 33.
I saw him Sunday. Seemed in good spirits. And although Neal Huntington would acknowledge later in the day, "Cervy's going to fight us on it, but we're going to take our time on this one," I'd bet it won't be long until he's all the way back.
Now, take Frazier and the catcher position, add standard versions of both into the lineup, and picture the difference.
7. Never fear! Help is on the way!
Ha! Sorry! It actually isn't!
I'll now resume regular bubbly programming ...
6. The rotation will return someday.
Trevor Williams isn't far off. Jameson Taillon's got another month, but he's also had no known setbacks. Chris Archer just came off a season-best outing against the league's most powerful lineup. Jordan Lyles has found terra firma in his past three starts, including another dud yesterday, but there isn't anyone who wouldn't have jumped for joy back in Bradenton if they knew he'd have a 3.38 ERA through 11 starts. And Joe Musgrove ... eh, not really sure what to think with him anymore -- he's John Candelaria one start, Jimmy Anderson the next -- but he's certainly shown to be capable.
It might not rise up again this summer. But there aren't more than a handful of teams around the majors that wouldn't welcome opening the 2020 season with these guys, plus Chad Kuhl.
5. Chad who what?
Here, Matt Sunday snapped this of him yesterday for verification he still exists:
It was great to see Kuhl and Edgar Santana, both of the Tommy John guys, both on the same recovery timetable for next spring training, make a visit from Bradenton. Both were grinning ear-to-ear at being around teammates again and, in all honesty, I appreciated this more than anything on the day.
Early in my beat days, I kept in close contact with Sean Burnett when he was going through a Tommy John rehab. Our exchanges would have made a fairly compelling case study, I dare say, on the mental challenges such players face. There are few rehabs like it in sports. It takes a year and a half. It comes with no promises. And, until recent years, it occurred in a virtual vacuum. Players were almost alone in Bradenton, left all alone. I can recall another pitcher years later -- again, not Burnett -- texting me to thank me for being the one person in Pittsburgh staying in touch with him.
"Oh, it's not like that anymore," Kuhl assured me yesterday. "There's all kinds of support, all kinds of people. I mean, it's great to be up here, to see the guys for a while, to be around the team, but it's a great group working with us down in Bradenton."
Great to hear.
4. The closer sleeps well.
If the starters regain any semblance of normality, then what held true in April will hold true again: Come up with six solid innings and the Pirates have a superb chance of winning. At the moment, they're 19-9 when the starter goes six, regardless of the score. They're also 18-7 when leading after six.
Francisco Liriano's been one of the most pleasant surprises, and he can combine with Kyle Crick for highly effective setup. We'll see about Kela's shoulder, though that's starting to sound ominous.
Beyond that, it's maybe the best closer in the game in Felipe Vazquez.
Interlude in the spirit of this column: Crush Huntington all day and all night for the Archer trade, but find a minute in there to remember that he traded Mark Melancon -- at just the right point of his career -- for Vazquez. Also, crush Ray Searage all day and all night for a bunch of stuff, but find a minute for Searage's handling of Vazquez, whose primary hangup in Washington was control.
The closer is awesome. On and off the mound. Sure hope you didn't miss this exchange he and I had yesterday.
3. Uh, the draft?
That takes place tonight at 7 p.m. The Pirates pick 18th, in case anyone wants to brace the poor kid who hears Huntington call his name. Lots of other picks will be made, and almost none of them will ever experience Pittsburgh without a tour guide.
The positive: With every draft that passes, that's another failed draft, followed by failed development, in the books. And eventually, that'll be noticed by Bob Nutting, even though it's somehow not been a priority for him over a decade and change.
Speaking of which ...
2. Nutting will sell.
Someday. Some Nutting or other. I mean, that has to happen before the big meteor strikes, doesn't it?
1. Josh Bell.
We haven't witnessed an individual power eruption like this in far too long. He makes every at-bat fun. And he's property of the Pirates for another four years, which is a whole lot of at-bats. American folklore knows few heroes like those capable of the cosmic long ball, and even these guys couldn't conceivably give him away before then.
As Frazier put it yesterday, "JB's the man. Everything he does right now is just perfect. Never seen anything like it."
Enjoy the moment. That's what everything in life is about, isn't it?
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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