Tuesday, June 10th, 2008 by Adam Wagner

So where’s Hines Ward?

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The Pirates are taking a page from the Steelers’ playbook.  And no, I don’t mean that in the part where they are winning games.  The Pirates have become excellent at the Hines Ward self-motivation, take sleights at nothing in order to pump each other up enough to win thing.  Ian Snell was good at it last year, but this year it’s the whole entire team and that was most evident today and yesterday, when Jason Michaels’ refusal to accept a strike call and Doug Mientkiewicz’s refusal to take crap from one of the best pitchers in the history of the game resulted in Pittsburgh victories.

The Mientkiewicz incident came in the 3rd inning, when Mientkiewicz stepped out of the box while Johnson was in his motion.  Both veterans began walking towards each other and the benches rapidly emptied, quickly demonstrating an Us vs. Them mindset that has been absent from past incarnations of the Pirates and erasing any doubts in the minds of Pittsburghers that this team only has one goal: to win.

In past years, the pride of the franchise has only mattered to a select few players, notably Jack Wilson and Snell.  Right now, though, everybody seems to care.  Maybe it’s because the team is only two games under .500 67 games into the season.  Maybe it’s because Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly emphasized the history of the franchise in spring training.  Or maybe it’s because the team now has a bunch of players who have won elsewhere and don’t want to sit back and watch their current team falter as it has in the past.

Onto the game, though.  Zach Duke was again solid, going six innings, striking out five hitters and only surrendering two runs.  Duke is showing that he has the stuff and the mentality to be the effective, consistent fourth starter that the Pirates need him to be.  Today, he had a cut fastball working better than it has in the past and the Diamondbacks just couldn’t really deal with it.

The most important pitch of a Pirate pitcher, though, may have been Tyler Yates’ fastball, which he used five times in a row against Arizona catcher Miguel Montero with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth inning, eventually striking Montero out and ending the threat.  It is worth noting that the jam was essentially inflicted on Yates by himself, as he walked two batters in the inning, loading the bases after Damaso Marte allowed one single.  Yates’ control is a serious issue and is something that the Pirates should start working on.

On the offensive side of the plate, the Pirates were in Randy Johnson’s head and it may have been a direct result of the Mientkiewicz incident as Johnson walked the first baseman and then made a throwing error on a simple grounder back to him by Jose Bautista, continuing the threat.  Montero then messed up on Duke’s sacrifice attempt, loading the bases for Luis Rivas (who got on base three out of four times out of the lead off spot) who was a beneficiary of Johnson’s wildness, strolling across the plate due to a walk and giving the Pirates a 1-0 lead.

The Pirates would score one run off of Johnson in the next three innings, giving them a 4-1 lead (the D’Backs’ run came off of a Mark Reynolds home run) that would prove to be enough to win on this day, as the Diamondbacks only scored two more times for a 5-3 final.

The other interesting incident of the day came when Reynolds hit a fly ball that appeared to be a home run in the seventh inning, but which was ruled a double due to fan interference.  Fortunately, the incident ended up being a non-issue because Reynolds scored during the next at-bat as the result of a Chris Young double or else Arizona would have had an even bigger reason to gripe than Bob Melvin’s getting ejected as an immediate result of the umpires overturning the call (Oh yeah, I left that part out . . . the umps originally called it a home run until John Russell came out to remind them of the ground rules).  If the hit had been ruled a home run instead of a ground-rule double, Reynolds would have had four home runs in the last two days.  Is it time to add him to the list of Pirate Killers?  I think so.

Pittsburgh is beginning to talk like the Pirates can reach the .500 point this week against the faltering Washington Nationals, which clearly shows that this group of executives and this group of players has done something that hasn’t been done since 1997 or 2003: give Pittsburgh baseball a small jolt of hope.

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