It all clicks for Bucs early on
It’s only been three games for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but it feels like Buctober again.
This time around, the Bucs have downed the Cards.
The opening series sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals has brought some confidence back to weary fans who may have felt the team was in for an uphill climb after an underwhelming offseason. However, it’s been some of those displeasing free agent signings that have won over the crowd in the first week.
On Wednesday, starting pitcher Juan Nicasio secured the sweep with his dazzling performance on the mound. He carried his strong spring training statistics to PNC Park where he struck out seven batters and allowed just one run over six innings.
In all, Pittsburgh pitchers struck out 37 Cardinals in the three-game set.
The Pirates bullpen has lived up to its lofty expectations with Tony Watson remaining consistent, Kyle Lobstein emerging as the “long guy” and Mark Melancon escaping jams and closing the door.
Before Nicasio’s brilliant start, Francisco Liriano opened the season with a 10-strikeout performance and newly acquired Jon Niese was efficient in his first outing as a Pirate. To many, the first sight of Niese may have added insult to injury as he adorned No. 18, the jersey of fan favorite Neil Walker, who was shipped to the New York Mets in December. From Section 311, where I was sitting on a bitter-cold Tuesday night, Niese – a left-handed hitter – almost looked like the Pittsburgh Kid as he stepped into the batters box.
Alas, Walker was indeed wearing his new blue and orange No. 20 jersey in Kansas City that same night. Against the Royals, Walker went 2 for 4 and blasted a two-run home run in a Mets victory.
Back in Pittsburgh, Niese set his new team up for a win with a solid five innings. He allowed four earned runs, but was victimized by uncharacteristic poor defense by Starling Marte in left field and Gregory Polanco in right field. Let’s attribute their errors to the freezing temperatures and assume they’ll improve once we get into the heart of summer.
As for Niese, his seven strikeouts were up from his average with the Mets last season. He was known as a guy who gets groundball outs, but now could be developing into a flamethrower under the watchful eye of pitching coach Ray Searage.
Since Searage was named full-time pitching coach in 2010, the Pirates have contended for a playoff spot.
During that span of six years, Pittsburgh has developed its core of players that have now made it the second-most winning franchise in the majors since 2013.
But, two new position players may just be the right pieces to vault the Pirates to the World Series this season.
At the corners, David Freese and John Jaso have proven to be pleasant additions to the core. In the first three games, Freese, a former World Series MVP with the Cardinals, is 5 for 14. Jaso, a Kid Rock doppleganger who has spent eight-year career in the American League before being picked up by the Pirates, is 3 for 12 with a “little league home run” on Wednesday.
Their play presents a lineup challenge for manager Clint Hurdle when Jung Ho Kang comes off the disabled list in a few weeks. It’s a good problem to have. The already-capable bench of Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce and Michael Morse becomes even stronger if Jaso, Freese, Jordy Mercer or Josh Harrison need to get a rest.
So far, there is a lot to like about this Pirates team. They are in first place, a spot, believe it or not, that they did not reach in the 2015 season.
Last year, Pittsburgh began the year 0-3 after being swept by the Cincinnati Reds.
The Pirates finished the campaign with 98 wins, while the Reds sunk to a 64-98 record.
There are still 159 games to play this season. After three, it’s hard not to be excited for more.
(Peaslee is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @thempeas)