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Pirates season full of defining moments

October 1, 2007
The Altoona Mirror
Highs and lows of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2007 season:

Final record: 68-94.

Final division finish: Sixth place, National League Central.

Approaching infamy: The Pirates have now endured 15 consecutive losing seasons and are in danger of matching the major leagues’ all-time string of consecutive losing seasons next year. The 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies struggled through 16 straight losing campaigns.

Season turning point: The Pirates won just 14 of 16 games after the all-star break — a slide that included a seven-game losing streak. The bad stretch left Pittsburgh with a 42-62 record at the end of July, and virtually no chance for a winning season.

Biggest transactions: The Pirates fired and hired a general manager in September, and also hired a new team president/chief executive officer. Dave Littlefield’s firing Sept. 7 after six seasons in the general manager’s role paved the way for the appointment of former Cleveland Indians’ Neal Huntington as the Bucs’ GM less than three weeks later. The Pirates also appointed Philadelphia native Frank Coonelly — an attorney who previously served as Major League Baseball’s senior vice president and chief labor counsel — as their new team president. Coonelly succeeded Kevin McClatchy, who announced in midseason that this would be his last as team president.

Biggest question mark entering the offseason: Will Jim Tracy return as the Pirates’ field manager in 2008 after two very unremarkable seasons? At this point, the odds appear to be stacked against it.

Best reason to watch this year’s Pirates: The Pirates had a solid month of August, when they posted a 17-13 record, set a franchise record for home runs (45) in a single month, and won 17 of 30 games. They led the major leagues in runs scored (182) during the month, while averaging over six runs per game.

Best reason to tune out: The Pirates had much higher expectations at the beginning of this season, and appeared to be on the verge of fulfilling them at the all-star break, but things fell apart for them in the last two weeks of July. When another losing baseball season is pretty much cinched before the Steelers even start training camp, it takes the wind out of the players — and fans’ — sails.

Best moments: The Bucs broke through for 20 hits in a 15-1 shellacking of the St. Louis Cardinals August 1. On July 21, the Pirates retired the number of their late Hall of Fame third baseman Honus Wagner prior to their game with the Houston Astros at PNC Park.

Best gesture: The Pirates’ fans gave Barry Bonds a standing ovation at PNC Park between games of a twi-night doubleheader involving the Pirates and San Francisco Giants Aug. 13. Before his 1993 free-agent acquisition by the Giants, Bonds started his career in Pittsburgh in 1986 and played seven seasons with the Pirates, helping the team to three National League East Division titles. Earlier this season, he established the major leagues’ all-time home run record — breaking Hank Aaron’s previous record of 755 that had stood for 31 years. Despite Bonds’ acrimonious departure from Pittsburgh 14 years ago — and his tainted reputation for breaking Aaron’s mark while being suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs — the Pirates’ fans took the high road in positively acknowledging the accomplishments of the player they had consistently jeered heavily for the past decade and a half in what may be his last appearance at PNC Park.

Longest winning streak: Five games, from April 22-28. The streak started with a win in Dodger Stadium, and included a three-game sweep of Houston at PNC Park and another victory over Cincinnati.

Longest losing streak: Nine games — from Sept. 15-23. The slide began with two losses in Houston, continued with four in San Diego, and wrapped up with three losses to the Chicago Cubs in Wrigley Field.

Most success against: Houston. The Pirates won 10 of 15 games with the Astros this year, including six of nine at Houston’s Minute Maid Park.

Least success against: San Diego. The Bucs were just 1-6 against the Padres, including an 0-4 record at San Diego’s Petco Park.

Best home record: The Bucs continued to have success against the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park, winning five of the seven games played between the two teams there this season. Since PNC opened in 2001, the Pirates are 42-20 against the Brewers there.

Best road record: Over the last four seasons, the Pirates have won 11 of 13 games at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. This season, the Bucs swept a three-game August series on the Giants’ field, outscoring San Francisco, 26-10 in the process.

Worst home record: The Bucs were swept in a three-game series by Colorado in mid-July at PNC Park, but bounced back in August to win three of four games from the Rockies in Denver. The Pirates also won just two of nine home games with the St. Louis Cardinals this year.

Worst road record: The Pirates won just one of nine games this season in Milwaukee’s Miller Park, where the Brewers outscored them, 60-28.

Best homestand: A 7-3 homestand against Washington (2-1), Milwaukee (3-1) and the Chicago Cubs (2-1) from June 29-July 8 gave the Pirates a surge of momentum heading into the all-star break.

Worst homestand: A 1-5 stand July 16-22 that started with the three-game sweep by Colorado and concluded with losses in two of three games to Houston took the wind out of the Pirates’ sails and precipitated the stretch in which the Bucs won just two of their first 16 games after the all-star break.

Best road trip: The Bucs were 5-2 on a seven-game August trip to Colorado (3-1) and Houston (2-1) August 20-26.

Worst road trip: The 1-8 trip to Houston, San Diego and Chicago’s Wrigley Field was a September disaster.

Best month: August was the Pirates’ only winning month this season.

Worst month: The Bucs won only seven of 24 games in July. July started on a promising note, with five of eight victories before the all-star break, but disintegrated with just two Pirates’ victories in 16 games from July 13-31. The Pirates also finished poorly, going 9-19 in September.

Most games over .500: Their five-game winning streak in late April gave the Pirates a winning record (11-10) for the only time this season.

Most games under .500: The Pirates finished the season 26 games under .500 (68-94) — their low-water point in the win-loss record column.

Highest spot in standings: After a three-game, season-opening sweep in Houston, the Pirates enjoyed a one-game lead atop the National League Central Division April 4. It was the first and only time they were in first place all season. The Bucs were in second place, 5¢ games behind Milwaukee, as late as May 30.

Lowest spot in standings: Sixth place was the Pirates’ domain for almost two solid months — from late July until the end of the season. They were 17 games out of first place at the end of the season.

Most productive player(s): Newcomer Adam LaRoche proved to be a solid acquisition at first base after being picked up from the Braves last winter. After a very slow April in which he batted just .133 with three homers and 11 runs batted in, LaRoche finished the season with a solid .272 average, 21 home runs, and 88 RBIs. Outfielder Xavier Nady hit .278 and contributed 20 home runs and 72 RBIs.

Most consistent player: After winning the National League batting title with a .344 average in 2006, Freddy Sanchez switched positions, from third to second base, and proved to be the real deal again in 2007. Despite missing most of spring training and the first week of the regular season with a knee injury and a week at the end of the season due to arthroscopic shoulder surgery, Sanchez wound up the season with a .304 batting average, and added power to his forte this year — belting 11 home runs and knocking in 81 runs. Sanchez also adapted extremely well to the second base position, giving the Pirates excellent defensive play there all season long. He was the Bucs’ lone representative in the 2007 major league all-star game, at San Francisco — his second all-star selection in as many seasons.

Best starting pitcher: After struggling in spring training, left-hander Tom Gorzelanny blossomed into the team’s ace this season, posting a 14-10 record and 3.88 earned run average and drawing strong consideration for a berth on the National League team in the All-Star Game.

Best relief pitcher: Matt Capps continued to be a strike machine in his second full season, emerging as the Bucs’ full-time closer and notching 18 saves in 21 opportunities. With the game on the line in the ninth inning, Capps is the pitcher the Pirates — and their fans — want on the mound.

Best newcomers: LaRoche was the best newcomer from last offseason, but midseason acquisitions Josh Phelps (who hit five home runs), Matt Kata and Cesar Izturis gave the Pirates’ much-needed spark off the bench in the final two months of the season.

Biggest disappointment (position player): Catcher Ronny Paulino went from a player who batted over .300 in limited duty in 2006 and appeared to give the Pirates a long-term solution at catcher, to a player who gave the team and its fans a long-term headache in 2007. Unable to hit pitches on the outside edge of the plate most of the season, Paulino became easy prey for National League pitchers. Although he rebounded somewhat late in the season and wound up with a .263 average, 11 homers, and 55 RBIs, his season batting average this year dipped into the low .200s at one point. And his catching skills declined as well. His repeated failure to block balls thrown in the dirt, and his often blase attitude, leaves the catching position as a question mark for the Bucs entering 2008.

Biggest disappointment (pitcher): What has happened to Zach Duke? Two years ago, Duke was fooling just about every National League batter he faced. Now, he’s not beating anybody. Entering the 2008 season, Duke’s future may be a bigger question mark than just about any player on the Pirates’ roster.

Most frustrating player: Outfielder Jason Bay again had ostensibly good power numbers, hitting 21 home runs and knocking in 84 runs. But Bay was hampered by knee problems this year, and proved to be consistently ineffective at the plate with runners in scoring position. His average dipped miserably — from .314 in early June to his final .247, and in midsummer, he endured one of the most prolonged batting slumps of any Pirates’ player in recent memory.

Most likely to leave: Will shortstop Jack Wilson — who batted .296 with 12 home runs and 56 runs batted in — return as a Pirate in 2008, especially after the late-season acquisition of Izturis? Littlefield consistently denied that Wilson was being shopped, but rumors of his moving on to the Detroit Tigers were among the most prevalent in the Pirates’ camp during the second half of the summer.

Biggest needs: The Bucs need to shore up the center field position, which became a question mark when the once-promising speedster Chris Duffy spent most of this season on the disabled list. Is Nate McLouth — who showed surprising power at the plate, clubbing 13 homers — the answer there? Or is late-season callup Nyjer Morgan? Can Curve alum Andrew McCutchen make inroads at the position in spring training? The Bucs would also do well to acquire at least one more productive power hitter for the middle of the order, and another starting pitcher to firm up a staff which is hit-and-miss after Gorzelanny and right-hander Ian Snell, who was 9-12 and struck out 177 batters this year.

Best-pitched games: Paul Maholm pitched a pair of complete-game gems, shutting out Houston, 3-0 on three hits April 24 and stopping San Francisco, 3-1 on three hits in the first game of a doubleheader Aug. 13. Gorzelanny blanked the Giants, 5-0 on four hits in a complete-game effort at San Francisco Aug. 11. Gorzelanny also worked seven shutout innings, allowing just five hits, and Capps and Salomon Torres completed the shutout in the Pirates’ 7-0 blanking of Florida May 14. Snell, who pitched the Bucs’ other complete game — a seven-hit, 8-1 victory over Texas June 13 — pitched seven shutout innings in an 11-0 victory over St. Louis Sept. 3. Tony Armas, Jr. teamed with relievers Franquelis Osoria and Romulo Sanchez in a 9-0 shutout of Milwaukee Sept. 10.

Best wins: Most of them — six come-from-behind victories — came in August. The Pirates wiped out a 3-0 deficit to beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 5-4 in 11 innings on Aug. 2, and bounced back from a 6-2 deficit to beat the San Francisco Giants, 8-7 on Aug. 10. The Pirates erased a 5-0 deficit to beat the New York Mets, 10-7 on Aug. 16, then wiped out a pair of 4-0 deficits to beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 11-6 on Aug. 18 and 8-4 on Aug. 19. Perhaps the Bucs’ best victory of the year came Aug. 24 in Houston, when they won an 8-3 verdict in 15 innings after Nady’s pinch-hit solo homer tied the game in the ninth. Nady hit the home run off Houston closer Brad Lidge, after also hitting a game-tying ninth-inning home run off Lidge in the April 2 season opener, won by the Pirates, 4-2 in 11 innings at Minute Maid Park.

Toughest loss: None was more difficult than a 9-8 loss to Arizona at PNC Park May 19, after the Pirates had built a 7-1 lead. The setback started a five-game losing streak.

— Compiled by John Hartsock

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