High Seas: I don't know what to do with my hands

Stop the presses.

Yes, is this the Times? What are you running above the fold? Yeah, the reporter the Russians put in jail… there’s Israel occupying the Temple Mount? And the former president under indictment…

But have you heard? Guess who swept the Red Sox? At Fenway?


Full disclosure — on Wednesday afternoon, I still had yet to decide what to write this week’s column about. Two topics came to mind. One was the Pirates’ ongoing saga with center fielder Bryan Reynolds, far and away the team’s best player, whose contract expires at the end of this season. And the other was the new rules that Major League Baseball instituted — specifically, the twenty-second pitch clock and banning the shift.

We’ll have time to discuss both of those, plenty, as the season goes on. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about, instead, is that the Pittsburgh Pirates won four out of five (three straight wins against Boston, a win and a loss versus the White Sox). They appear to have learned how to play the game of baseball.

Specifically, I want to talk about how the Pirates have learned to hit baseballs.

Yes, there were pitching gems this week — Mitch Keller allowing just one hit against the Red Sox in the first six-and-two-thirds innings on Wednesday, and David Bednar repeatedly putting the Sox to bed (as he does with such frequency). But the story of this week, for all that, was not the pitching. It was the hitting, and that’s why the Buccos end the week with four wins in five games.

Pittsburgh beat Boston 7-6, 4-1, and 4-1, beat Chicago 13-9, and lost to Chicago 11-5. That means that over the course of the week, the Pirates put up a mind-boggling 33 runs, an average of a shade under seven per game. These weren’t fluke runs, either. Over this stretch, the club hit .291 (including a staggering .452 against the White Sox on Friday), and belted home run after home run. What happened?

Two answers.

Answer number one is named Bryan Reynolds, who went a magnificent 11-for-21 with four homers on the week, including nearly hitting for the cycle on Friday, which would have made him the first Pirate to do so in nearly a decade.

Answer number two is a familiar one for Pirates fans. I grew up watching the young, up-and-coming Andrew McCutchen, and I remember what I felt when I would watch McCutchen stride to the plate. It wasn’t excitement, although there was certainly some of that. What I would feel was relief. It’s worth unpacking just how unusual that is. Baseball is a game designed to favor the pitcher at the expense of the hitter; a batter has one job, to get a hit, and even the very best fail more than two-thirds of the time. It’s a game designed for excitement. Every at-bat is a new chance, a new opportunity for something to happen, but you watch your team go to the dish every inning with the full knowledge that, in all likelihood, nothing will happen.

Sidenote — but is this why so many baseball fans end up alcoholics, why ballparks can get away with selling fourteen-dollar beers and still have a line wrapping all the way around the block? Baseball is a very sad game. Half of the time, you’re watching your team on defense, biting your nails. You cannot score — only the other team can. That’s sad, isn’t it? Then you get your chance at redemption in the other half of the game, offense, where you watch the best talent your team has to offer go to bat, only for there to be a mathematical likelihood that they do absolutely nothing and waste the plate appearance. That’s less sad, but it’s still sad. Then you repeat the cycle nine more times. Every inning has the same familiar beat. First you’re scared, then you’re resigned. Scared. Resigned. Scared. Resigned. And so on, and so forth. So ballparks have found the perfect solution. You drink out of fear in the top of the innings, and you drink out of self-pity in the bottom. Either way, you’re a wreck by the end of the game, and then you remember that this humiliation you’ve just endured isn’t over, that there are another 153 games to go in the season, and suddenly you’re crying in your friend’s car and vomiting and crying while he tells you everything will be okay but he doesn’t get it, does he? Because he isn’t like you, he doesn’t know the pain of being a diehard Pirates fan, can’t relate to the hope that this team has every spring that gets stabbed in the heart again and again and again, and the love for this stupid team that loses a hundred games every fucking year, and then you fall asleep, and then the Bucs are at it again the next afternoon and you start the cycle all over again.

“You’re getting distracted. This is supposed to be an optimistic piece, right?”

Yeah, but come on, we know how this is going to end-

“No. You’re writing this whole goddamned column about how these are the new Pirates, the playoff Pirates. What’s the point if you’re gonna be a naysayer about it? Don’t you believe?”

Yeah, but I write this same column every f$cking year, and- whatever. Where was I?

McCutchen. Growing up, I would feel sheer relief to see him step to the plate, as counterintuitive as it was, knowing that he was the best shot our team had to do anything. If I closed my eyes this week, I could see the 36-year-old McCutchen turn back into his 26-year-old self, feel that relief come back, if only a little. I felt like a child again, and McCutchen did his job, going 7-for-16 on the week, including a hit in his first home game at PNC Park in half a decade.

But that brings us to answer number three. The guys that really impressed me this week were the bench guys, the depth guys, the utility players who are sometimes eighth in the order and sometimes pinch-hit, and the spot where the Pirates always meet their downfall. This week, those guys were good. Jason Delay, who caught four of the five games, went a very respectable 5-for 17. So too did Ji-hwan Bae, who’s quickly becoming the Bucs’ everyday second baseman. Connor Joe, a utility infielder, wound up 4-for-7. Obviously, this level of consistency and performance, a 14-for-41 (.341) week from the bottom third of the order, isn’t sustainable. But if these players can find themselves hitting, say, .240 or .250 going forward, the Pirates dugout will be a very different place.

They won’t, of course, because the Pirates suck. If one of our players is accidentally good, sometime in June, they will be traded, probably to the Yankees, for prospects who will never pan out, because that is what happens to good Pirates players. They suck every year, and they probably suck this year, too. But right now, they’re 5-3, leading the wild-card race and just one game out of first place in the National League. They currently boast a higher winning percentage than the Penguins, who are doing their job down the stretch but appear infuriatingly close to missing the playoffs for the first time since I was in a stroller. They’re doing better than the Steelers were eight games into their season, and that team didn’t have a quarterback, didn’t have an offensive line, and still came one Joe Flacco incompletion away from making the playoffs.

So, dear reader, there’s hope. There is hope. The weather is warm, Bryan Reynolds leads the majors in homers, Andrew McCutchen is back in Pittsburgh, the semester is almost over, the grass smells like summer again, and the Buccos are doing alright. What more can we ask?

Pirates Last Six:
4/3 @Red Sox. W 7-6
4/4 @Red Sox. W 4-1
4/5 @Red Sox. W 4-1
4/7 vs White Sox. W 13-9
4/8 vs White Sox. L 11-5
4/9 vs White Sox. W 1-0

Pirates Next Six
4/10 vs Astros
4/11 vs Astros
4/12 vs Astros
4/13 @Cardinals
4/14 @Cardinals
4/15 @Cardinals