Thursday, March 22, 2007

Peak: Pirates save Tokyo! (for one inning, at least)

One of the unforeseen shortcomings of this "Peak and Gutter" gimic that I've been basing this blog on is the fact that those are subjective terms. I've also come to realize that, by and large, the application of "Peak" or "Gutter" is really quite relative to the topic I'm ruminating on. As such, this post is listed as a "Peak," but that's largely because the standards are so low for the Pittsburgh Pirates that even a modest accomplishment, such as one mildly productive inning, is a high point.

So, for a (short) time on Wednesday afternoon, the Pirates made $103 million look like a bad sushi roll when they faced Boston Red Sox “rookie” pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.

You might remember Matsuzaka as the MVP of the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Oh wait, no one watched that, so you probably don’t remember that. Okay then, you might remember Matsuzaka as the Japanese pitcher who was so coveted by major league teams that he, along with agent Scott Boras, got $51 million from the Red Sox, and that was just for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka. After ponying up that $51 million, the Red Sox then turned around and gave Matsuzaka a 6-year $52 million contract.

So that’s a grand total of $103 million for a player who had yet to throw a single pitch in a Major League Baseball game. But the Red Sox saw Matsuzaka’s 96 mph fastball, which tops off an arsenal that includes a splitter, a changeup, a cuveball, a slider, a shooto (the so-called “reverse slider”), and the delicious-sounding gyroball; as such, Boston paid Masuzaka his money, and the man the Japanese called “The Monster” (although in the U.S. he has taken on the far more urban nickname of “Dice-K”) was headed for Fenway Park.

But before he got to Fenway Park, Dice-K had to take part in the opening rites of baseball in America, spring training. His spring was planned to consist of seven scheduled starts. The fourth start got rained out, and he took the field for his fifth scheduled start on Wednesday when the Red Sox faced the Pirates in Bradenton.

And for one glorious inning, the Pirates rolled the Dice-K.

It started with Chris Duffy. Like a true lead-off man, Duffy performed his duty of getting on base when Dice-K plunked him with the second pitch. Success: the Pirates had a man on base. Shortstop Don Kelly and catcher Ronny Paulino then each grounded out, moving Duffy to third. And just like that, the Buccos had a runner 90 feet from home plate against Dice-K. Oh yeah, this was getting good.

Next up was first baseman/personal lord and savior Adam LaRoche, and the most highly-exalted acquisition of the off-season came through in a big way, dropping a bloop single into right field, scoring Duffy and striking a blow against Dice-K. Success!

Okay, so the Pirates’ joy was short-lived, since Dice-K proceeded to end the inning by striking out Jason Bay, the first of 11 straight Pirates he retired. The streak ended in the fifth when Nate McLouth walked, but that was the only Pirate other than Duffy or LaRoche to reach base against Dice-K. The Red Sox pitcher lasted 5 2/3 innings total, striking out 7 batters, walking 1, giving up 1 hit and 1 earned run. Dice-K’s day ended with a 12-pitch duel against Kelly, who fouled off six pitches before tipping one into Jason Varitek’s glove to end the at-bat.

So, all in all, Dice-K pretty much owned the Pirates. I won’t get into how he choked up Duffy with a gyroball or how the shooto twisted Bay, but I will say this:

We’ll always have that first inning.

Also notable on Wednesday:

Former Pirate Daryle Ward made some noise when he hit a walk-off grand slam to give the Chicago Cubs an 11-7 win over Texas. You may remember Daryle Ward from a couple seasons ago when he became one-half of the first father-son tandem to ever hit for the cycle (I believe the Pirates marketing department commemorated the occasion with t-shirts that read “Ward & Son Cycle Shop,” with a motorcycle motif; very clever).

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