Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Pirates aren't sure which end of race is up - Timesonline.com

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates are supposedly in a pennant race, yet they seem more like Nik Wallenda walking across Niagara Falls on a tightrope.

The Pirates are trying to act like contenders and win the second NL wild card playoff berth. If successful, the Pirates will qualify for the postseason for the first time in 20 years.

At the same time, the Pirates are behaving like a team that is rebuilding. Of course, that is exactly what they have been for the past 20 years.

It's an odd dynamic to say the least, kind of like slathering pennant butter on a tuna melt.

"It's kind of who we are," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Tuesday before the Pirates opened a pivotal three-game series with the Brewers at PNC Park. "We're always going to try to work young players into the mix."

Certainly, no one expects the Pirates to empty out their farm system and Bob Nutting's coffers to field a team full of veterans. This isn't 1992, when the Pirates were one of baseball's biggest spenders and model franchises in the game.

Prospects hold more value than ever in today's game, ever for the big-market clubs, and Nutting isn't going to start spending big money until a snowstorm cancels the Fourth of July fireworks display. Nutting is a bottom-line guy and will be to the day he dies.

However, it is disorienting to watch the way the Pirates are attacking their first meaningful September since 1997. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether they are they are more interested in reaching the postseason or holding an open tryout camp.

Tonight, the Pirates will trot rookie right-hander Kyle McPherson to the mound to start against the Brewers in the second game of the three-game series. McPherson has posted a fine 1.54 ERA in seven games and 11 2/3 innings of relief in his first taste of the major leagues but has started only three games above the Class AA level.

"I'm excited and a little surprised," McPherson said. "I didn't expect to start a game this meaningful."

McPherson, who is replacing the struggling James McDonald, becomes the second rookie in the rotation along with left-hander Jeff Locke. Infielder Brook Holt, who had never played above Class AA until August, has also seen plenty of action while second baseman Neil Walker deals with a sore lower back. Even Jeff "Automatic Out" Clement keeps getting a chance to pinch hit on a daily basis.

Playing so many young guys isn't the road most taken by contenders. It also contradicts Nutting's long-standing contention that the Pirates would spend money when they became contenders.

Nevertheless, this is the way the Pirates roster is constructed, so they will either make it across the falls or, much more likely, fall into the drink.

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