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Walking the Plank
by Matt Etling
Oh Kevin Young, you suck.

Yesterday, I had the chance to attend the final game of the Rangers-Pirates series at PNC Park. The game ended 10-4 in favor of Texas, giving them the sweep and continuing the recent downward spiral of the Pirates. I'll get into the specifics of the game and the Pirates in a little bit, but first I want to share the atmosphere of the ballpark.

First of all, it was pretty damn hot. Gametime temperature was right around 90 degrees and stayed there pretty consistently. My father and I sat about seven rows up on the last section of seats down the right field line... directly in the sun, of course. About 15 minutes before first pitch, I had to run to the ATM and get myself money for a refreshing, four-dollar cup of Pepsi. While I wound my way around the concourse (and PNC Park has one of the best-stocked concession areas around) in search of cash, I could just barely hear the starting lineups being announced. Being the budding score-keeping nerd that I am, I was pretty distressed by this. Until I got to the ATM and noticed a nifty machine right next to it... push the screen, get today's lineups freshly printed. With my faith renewed in technology and modern ballparks, back to the seat I went.

It was kids' day at the park, as it is on most Sundays. With the heat, the ushers were very cool about people with kids moving up to seats in the shade. I thought this was a nice touch. Also adding to the enjoyment was the constant harassment of Rafael "I Take Viagra" Palmeiro by the fans and even Vince Lascheid, legendary organist of Pittsburgh sports. Continuing the trend of music clips being played before at-bats, Palmeiro was greeted once by a simple "boi-oi-oi-oi-oi-oing" sound effect, and later by the Woody Woodpecker theme. Crude, but amusing in my book.

Over twenty-seven thousand fans braved the heat today to see today's game, and most seemed to enjoy themselves despite the outcome. The little things I talked about above help make PNC Park a great place to see a game, not to mention the wonderful view from every seat in the park, the Pittsburgh skyline (yes, Pittsburgh does have a skyline) out past center field, and wonderful beautiful GRASS. Anyone can enjoy PNC Park... but if you've ever sat through the uncomfortable seats, soul-less concrete and artificial turf of Three Rivers Stadium, you can appreciate it even more.

Ah yes, the game.

As I write this the Pirates are in the midst of a six-game losing streak, suffering sweeps by the A's and Rangers on this homestand. Their best run-scoring effort in this streak was the four runs scored today. The last two were from an absolute MONSTER home run by Rob Mackowiak, of all people, that cleared the right field bleachers before landing on the walkway outside the fence and bouncing into the Allegheny River. Too bad it was in the bottom of the 9th with the game well out of reach.

Six games, thirteen runs. This is just a continuation of the anemic offense all season from the Pirates. Brian Giles is having an All-Star worthy season (17 HR, .308 BA) but only 42 RBI to show for it. The leadoff position has been a black hole all season regardless of whoever's been placed there. Adrian Brown, Chad Hermansen, now even Jason Kendall and today Rob Mackowiak. Much debate has been created about what makes a good "leadoff hitter", but it's pretty clear that the answer isn't anywhere in the Pirates organization.

Right now the Pirates lineup on any given night (Manager Lloyd McClendon has used nearly sixty different lineups so far this season) consists of Brian Giles hitting third, surrounded by an absolute void on both sides. Mackowiak shockingly did quite well today at leadoff, going 3-5 with a double and that mammoth home run mentioned earlier. Jack Wilson filled the number two slot today, and he sure hit like number two. 0-4 with one walk is not going to set the table for Giles, who went 2-3 with a walk and a double. Aramis Ramirez at clean-up? 1-3 and a hit-by-pitch. And if you think that's brutal, dig on spots five through seven.

1B-Young		0-4, 3K
C-Osik		0-4, K
CF-Hermansen	0-4, K

Yes, we love Kevin Young here in the 'burgh. He's certainly a fine veteran who offers leadership for this young team, and is well worth the more than six million dollars he'll be earning this season.

The Pirate bullpen may finally be starting to show the strain of having absolutely no run support to work with. Left-hander Ron Villone gave up a two-run shot to Kevin Mench and Mike Fetters appeared to have his mind on the post-game Gatorade, Sausage and Bacon Smorgasboard in his locker as he gave up three hits, three walks and four runs in two-thirds of an inning.

So, what to do? I've got a few ideas...

Craig Wilson. Sure he's not as good defensively as Kevin Young, but does that honestly matter anymore? At the very least he could platoon with Mackowiak in right field, regardless of when Armando Rios limps his way back into the lineup. He's shown signs of power in recent weeks and there is no reason that he should be relegated to pinch-hitting.

Jason Kendall. For the love of all that's holy, put him in the number two spot and leave him there. He's batted everywhere from leadoff to sixth in the order in recent years, making it virtually impossible for him to generate any level of comfort. He can take a walk, has decent enough speed and just enough power to make him really dangerous with men on base. Which reminds me...

Find a leadoff man. This has been covered already. McClendon and GM Dave Littlefield need to sit down and decide exactly what type of lineup they want to put on the field, starting at the top. Nothing will work for Kendall and Giles until there are actually baserunners for them to drive home.

It's been a bit painful to watch the great start by the Pirates tailspin into this sad state. At the same time, it's been a long time coming.