Opening Day at PNC Park, again.
A windy snowy dawn turned into a chilly gray overcast morning by late morning. The tarp was removed from the field just in time for the gates to open, revealing a perfectly manicured field. Many fans arrived early, quietly soaking in the scene and taking pictures. After an off-season in which the anxieties and uncertainties of the real world seemed to relentlessly press in from all angles, the peaceful hum of hundreds of conversations in the stands as players played catch down below was strangely reassuring and comforting. Then the scoreboard turned on and the pregame "entertainment" broke the spell.
Opening days are very much the calm before the storm. They are characterized by optimism more than anything else. Soon enough games pile up and the grind of the season begins to reveal each team's identity. But on opening day, disbelief is usually suspended.
However, this opener felt a little different for the Pirates. Indeed, if anything was missing, it was a palpable sense of high expectations surrounding the team. Most projection systems have the Pirates ending up somewhere around the .500 mark, with the divisional race a foregone conclusion. Compared to the last few years, it feels a little odd. It is especially strange when looked at from the perspective of, say, 2012. An Opening Day roster of homegrown talent like Starling Marte, Josh Bell, Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, Tyler Glasnow and, of course, Andrew McCutchen was supposed to be met with more anticipation than this.
Of course, in the clubhouse nothing was noticeably different from any other year except for some new names and faces. Players were mostly busy unpacking their bags and organizing their lockers for the first time. As the press moved from stall to stall, each player paused long enough to dutifully say all the right things about the meaningfulness of the day and joke about the weather. In the press conference room, a reflective Clint Hurdle described Opening Day as "one of the rites of the year."
"These things need to be appreciated," he said. "I love it and I’ll never take it for granted."
Asked what makes him optimistic about the season ahead, Hurdle pointed to the continuity of the team’s core group.
"I like the experience we’ve garnered together," Hurdle said. "That’s one of the things I’m really looking forward to – them cultivating the ownership they have of this team. They’ve grown from being survivors to contributors and now, I believe, winners."
Regardless of projections, there is a lot to like about this year’s group. There is a stable and mostly reliable core in place. On paper, the bullpen looks like a strength and the middle defense will save runs. Marte and Polanco will blanket PNC Park’s vast center and left fields, while providing heft to an offense that will need it. If all goes well, Bell’s disciplined approach at the plate will continue to draw premature, but enticing, comparisons to a certain Reds first baseman. The rotation is ranked around league average by fivethirtyeight.com’s projection system, but it is easy to dream on the Cole-Taillon combination, with Ivan Nova and Chad Kuhl providing workmanlike numbers in the third and fourth spots. Glasnow is a wild card, but his upside is obvious. Finally, there is plenty of versatility and good at bats to be found on the bench.
There are concerns, however. The offense may struggle, especially if McCutchen doesn’t return to form and if Jung-Ho Kang fails to join the club sooner than later. The starting rotation is young – indeed, the third youngest starting rotation in baseball – and that could lead to some rocky patches. However, as someone who is well-read in and student of leadership theory, Hurdle doesn’t publicly talk about concerns or worries. Instead, he prefers to speak of opportunities and challenges. When asked about his young staff, the Pirates manager shrugged and said, "It’s a number."
"It all depends how your frame things up," Hurdle said. "There are opportunities to go out and pitch and see where they’re going to take. They are going to gain experience as they move forward. We’ll all see and monitor the development."
One obvious early storyline for this team is Andrew McCutchen. He wasn’t around the clubhouse before the game, but after reaching base four times and driving in the game’s first RBI, the Pirates’ right fielder sounded much more like the player who in 2015 stood in front of his locker and proclaimed he was sick of going "0-for-frickin’-4," and then proceeded to go on an offensive tear. There were no such defiant moments last year.
"Today didn’t do anything for my confidence," McCutchen said. "My confidence was already high. …I’m still me, I’m still Andrew McCutchen. No one’s theory of me on this team has changed. They understand who I am."
McCutchen’s played his first game in right field and it went off without much of a hitch. He made a nice sliding catch on a line drive in the fifth, and just missed nabbing a hard liner that sailed over his head in the eighth.
"It was cool," McCutchen said of the experience. "It’s my ninth year, man. The outfield is the outfield. There really isn’t anything new besides the scoreboard that they have out there. Just another day in Pittsburgh. Even though it was right field, there wasn’t anything really new."
The Pirates received an excellent start from Nova, who allowed only one unearned run over six innings. As is his trademark since joining the Pirates, he showed excellent control and deftly escaped jams in the fourth and the sixth. On the day, Nova didn’t allow a walk and struck out four.
"He was great," Francisco Cervelli said. "He was moving his pitches a lot. When he got men in scoring position, he was a pro. He just got the job done."
For his part, Cervelli contributed to the back-end of a back-to-back solo homer sequence in the fifth that put the Pirates ahead 4-1.
"I worked hard in the off-season. I feel good. A lot of good things are going to happen this year," the Pirates’ catcher said. "I’ve never had a season with more than seven homeruns, but I feel healthy. If I can hit 40 homers this year, then I’m happy to."
The Pirates appeared to have the game in hand heading into in the late innings, but a four run lead was quickly sliced to one after the Braves collected three hits and three runs off of Wade LeBlanc and Daniel Hudson in the eighth.
Tony Watson closed the game out by stranding the tying run at third.
There was a scary moment in the eighth when a sharp ground ball from Dansby Sawnson hopped up and hit David Freese just under his throat. The Pirates third baseman completed the inning and then was pitch hit for in the bottom of the inning.
"I would have ducked, if I saw it," Freese joked afterwards. "Never had that happen before, except only when I’ve been in fights."
So, the Pirates notched a nice win on as baseball finally returned to the city. The team will now retreat under the baseball radar and try to make some hay against the Braves and Reds before facing tough two weeks in the middle of the month against the Red Sox, Cubs, Cardinals and Yankees.
There is a popular variation on ancient proverb that states: "The wheels of justice grind slowly, but exceedingly fine." The same could be said of a baseball season. The persistent grind of the season is just about to settle in and it will stress test and reveal all aspects of this roster.
"There are areas that we’re going to have to improve," Hurdle said. "The fact of the matter is, I believe in our offense. I believe we got some guys that about to crack things open and get rolling."