It’s caught my attention that the Pittsburgh Pirates have been on a roll recently, which is probably not the best of news for this group from the Steel City. It seems like each time I write about a team in the midst of a hot streak, it usually becomes the kiss of death. A couple of weeks ago, I demanded that the Kansas City Royals get more respect. Since then the American League champions have dropped into the toilet, losing eight out of their last 11 games. The team was even a victim of a blown replay call the other night against the Cleveland Indians, a ruling that the boys in New York admitted guilt and said was a “rare circumstance.”
The Pirates though, were thought to be contenders early on by my fellow media-types. So if they tank after this post, don’t blame me. What I’ve noticed of late is that former National League MVP Andrew McCutchen has cut the “dreads” and is starting to do his thing. And while the super star center fielder has hit .383 over the last 30 games to carry this team, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Josh Harrison and Korean newcomer Jung Ho Kang have provided an excellent supporting cast for the Buc’s high-powered offense.
The pitching staff is starting to settle in as well. Garrit Cole has been lights out, and who would have thought that 38-year-old A.J. Burnett would be a top rotation guy, especially after his horrible 8-18 struggle last season in Philadelphia? But there he stands with Cole and Francisco Liriano as part of a feared trio who continue to punch out rival hitters. The bullpen has been effective, too, especially since the emergence of flamboyant Arquimedes Caminero. The Dominican’s quirky presence has added a bridge to late-inning specialists Tony Watson and Mark Melancon. Therefore, I’m not shocked that the Pirates have won 13 of their last 16 games. My only question is this: Is this club good enough to overtake the St. Louis Cardinals and win their first division championship since 1992? The answer, in my opinion, rests with Pedro Alvarez and Francisco Cervelli, a pair of humble players who hold very key roles.
The Pirates haven’t had a real bonafide masher at first base since the late Willie Stargell of the “We Are Family” teams, and now they do. I’m not saying that Alvarez is Hall of Fame worthy like the man who was affectionately known as “Pops.” But the burly, 28-year-old Dominican-American can certainly rake like Stargell, and the Pirates desperately need for him to pull his weight consistently.
During the offseason, it wasn’t certain if Alvarez even had a future in Pittsburgh with rumors surfacing that a trade was looming. After committing 25 errors at third base last year with the schedule barely into August, he lost his job to Harrison. The tentative plan was to move Alvarez across the diamond in an experimental trial at first base, an idea that wasn’t met with much enthusiasm. Eventually Pedro understood, however, deciding he would do “what was best for the team.” Agreeing to the switch was typical of the former Vanderbilt standout who had faced a lot tougher decisions growing up in the unforgiving New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights. Alvarez worked hard over the winter, and although the new position is still a learning experience, he hasn’t let his adventures on the field hurt his performance at the plate. Frequent strikeouts are still an issue, but he’s on a pace to surpass career numbers in base hits and doubles, and he often burns the opposing team by hitting to all fields.
The catching situation in Pittsburgh was an area of concern in spring camp, only to become a pleasant surprise. Filling the huge shoes of Russell Martin turned out to be Cervelli, who, ironically, was Martin’s backup with the New York Yankees. At age 29, the Italian-born Venezuelan was finally given the opportunity to take the reigns, and he has savored the challenge.
“Cervelli has done a great job of learning our pitcher’s strengths,” observes Pirates field boss Clint Hurdle. “Offensively, he’s seeing the ball really well.”
I would concur. Francisco leads all Pirate hitters with a .331 average, and has stepped it up a notch to .423 over his last 16 games.
“I’m not Russ,” laughs Cervelli, noting that the press continuously tries to make the Martin comparison. “I have to be me. But as a catcher, I take a lot of pride in what I do.”
The Pirates would love to see a proven slugger like Alvarez get reasonably comfy at first base and hit bombs like he did in 2012 and 2013. That’s when he had Stargell-like numbers, blasting 30 and 36 big flies respectively. Now that a chronic foot ailment has healed, there should be no more excuses.
As for Cervelli, who normally hits in the seven or eight hole, his strength at the plate makes the Pirates potentially dangerous throughout the lineup. After numerous injuries and being overlooked in New York for years, he has finally found a fan base in Pittsburgh who like blue-collar players that bust their behinds. And even for veteran hurlers like Liriano, the emotion of Cervelli and his energy behind the plate seems to seep through the cracks.
“(Francisco) really cares about us,” reflects the crafty Dominican, who normally beats to his own drum. “I respect him, and that’s why I don’t shake him off so much.”
I know these Pittsburgh Pirates are a talented bunch with young phenoms and established stars. The overused “chemistry” cliche definitely fits this club, which is a tribute to Hurdle and his coaches. So there’s good reason why many experts pick the Pirates to be present in the Fall Classic. What I think probably doesn’t matter, but I’ll give you my take anyway. For there to be joy at PNC Park, like there was at Three Rivers Stadium in the late 1970’s, Pedro Alvarez and Francisco Cervelli need to stay healthy and continue to shine. That’s what I’m able to read from my cracked crystal ball.