Kovacevic: Pirates see their stars aligning
NEW YORK — Take what you will from Major League Baseball's 84th All-Star Game, staged Tuesday night before a sardine-packed Citi Field and carrying with it all the pomp and pageantry that's come to be expected, but I'll go ahead and toss this comparatively flat fact into the ring: The Pirates won't have home-field advantage for the World Series.
Oh, I went there. I did.
And hey, why not?
“You always want the home field in sports, right?” Andrew McCutchen was saying beforehand. “So yeah, the game does mean something.”
All five of them went there, actually, but Mark Melancon went furthest. The man used a “when” rather than an “if.”
“This is a big deal, actually,” Melancon said. “When we get to the World Series, home field is a big deal. There's a lot on the line.”
And does he allow himself to envision that at all, that whole World Series thing?
“That's what we expect. That's our goal, from the very beginning of spring training.”
Heady times for the franchise, indeed, for this topic to even arise, let alone for all the faces to stay straight. A 56-37 record will do that.
The game itself was kind of a dud, both on the broader and local scales. Emblematic of what's happening all over the sport, the pitching dominated and the American League prevailed over the National, 3-0 with a three-hit throwdown. On the Pittsburgh end, McCutchen struck out twice, Jason Grilli conceded an unlucky triple to open the ninth – when Prince Fielder's blooper slipped under right fielder Carlos Gomez's diving try – but stranded him. And Pedro Alvarez's lone plate appearance marked the game's final out, a popup.
“I was just happy to get up there,” Alvarez said, referring to the two-out double by the Diamondbacks' Paul Goldschmidt that gave him the chance. “It was an honor, but I wish it could have been a better result.”
Even the ancillary stuff didn't go the Pirates' way. When Grilli took the mound for the highlight of his career, the Mets' public address announcer introduced him as Melancon before correcting himself.
Hey, maybe Mr. P.A. knew Melancon always comes first.
“That's all right,” Grilli said, glancing at his setup man in the next stall. “That's my mate. Recognition for all of us.”
So whatever. Here's guessing that won't resonate nearly as much with these gentlemen as all else that accompanied the experience.
Did you see the joy in Grilli's eyes when he took the mound?
Asked how that felt, he beamed: “Fun, man. Just fun. If you can't have fun with a situation like that …”
It was no different earlier when the Fox crew interviewed him during the game, not to mention when he was shown the Sports Illustrated cover that will bear his fist-pumping image this week.
First one for the Pirates in 21 years, you know.
And what few saw but might have meant just as much: Grilli met the great Mariano Rivera a few hours before first pitch.
When Rivera came to him.
“He knew my name,” Grilli said in a tone befitting a teen in the front row of a Justin Bieber show.
He wasn't the only one.
McCutchen seemed especially moved by the afternoon red-carpet ride through Manhattan, for which he was easily among the most nattily attired.
“Picked it myself,” he said.
Alvarez, anything but the red-carpet type, was put into the odd spot of being treated like a homecoming king, interviewed by media from national types to 10-watt radio stations from his Washington Heights neighborhood. And he handled all with grace.
“Time of my life,” he said.
Jeff Locke spoke glowingly of getting tips from Clayton Kershaw and of “a new generation” of pitching in the National League.
And Melancon … he was just bouncing all over.
“Honestly, it's too fast,” he said. “I wish I could slow it all down.”
That's to say nothing of the most powerful Pittsburgh moment, when all five Pirates were introduced in a row shortly before first pitch. McCutchen was fittingly first and earned the warmest applause.
All this can have the effect of allowing for big thoughts, of course, the kind no one's dared to think across Western Pennsylvania since, what, the last time an SI reporter visited Pittsburgh for baseball?
Really big thoughts.
And it hasn't been that way around this team for a terribly long time, if you ask me, until that confidence set in this summer.
“Honestly, I'll respectfully disagree as far as we're concerned,” Alvarez retorted when I brought that up. “Since I've been here, the goal has always been to win the World Series. We've always had the vision, always saw that as a possibility. What's happened in the past has happened. But the way we think about it hasn't changed. We're very optimistic. And we are absolutely sure that we have the components to see this through.”
Anyone care to argue?
Alvarez is undeniably correct when describing the internal view of the Pirates' goal. That's been set by Clint Hurdle since his arrival. Lest anyone forget, this is the manager derided far and wide for daring to suggest in spring training that he'd like to win 95 games because that seemed like a safe number to make the playoffs.
At the same time, it's the manager who has stressed to his players to stay with the present.
“All I know is I'm slated to pitch in the third game this weekend in Cincinnati, and we as a team are looking at that first game Friday,” Locke said. “We play for today.”
He couldn't help but add, though: “Ultimately, yeah, we want to play in October. That's what all this is about.”
That's Games 3-4-5 for those following along.