Pirates packing them into PNC Park this season
The Pirates are hovering around .500, but the home crowds have been far from average.
Entering Thursday night's game, the Pirates are drawing more than 24,000 fans per game at PNC Park — more than 1.3 million in all — and rank in the top 20 in attendance in the major leagues for the first time in a decade.
The team is just shy of the pace to hit 2 million spectators, something that's only happened three times in franchise history (1990, '91 and 2001).
"It has been one of the best stories for me, personally," first-year manager Clint Hurdle said. "They are everything you could want in your home crowd. It has been great. I applaud them."
Two million is reachable. The team needs to average about 1,100 more per game than they're currently drawing over their remaining 26 home games to eclipse the mark.
The Pirates open a three-game series against the Padres on Friday. Sellout crowds are likely for Friday and Saturday, and a weekend total of 105,000-plus is expected, a team spokesman said.
If the team continues to be near .500 and stay within striking distance of NL Central leaders, the combined 16 remaining games against division rivals Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati at 38,000-seat PNC Park could draw large crowds.
Since 1993, when the team's current 18-year losing streak began, the Pirates have finished in the top 20 in attendance once, in 2001, the year PNC Park opened.
That year, the team drew a franchise-record 2,435,867, or almost 31,000 per game.
They attracted fewer than 20,000 fans per game the past two seasons and have ranked 27th or 28th in the majors each of the past seven years.
"There is a huge difference from the crowds," veteran pitcher Paul Maholm said. "This is what they have been waiting on, for us to play well."
This year, the Pirates already have sold out 12 games and played in front of 30,000-plus fans at PNC Park 18 times. They are 12-6 in those games, despite playing heavyweights including Boston and Philadelphia.
Pirates outfielder Matt Diaz knows the difference loud, energetic crowds can make. His big league debut came with Tampa Bay when the club was playing in front of tiny crowds at cavernous Tropicana Field.
"The first line Travis Lee told me was, 'Wait until we go on the road. It will feel like the big leagues,' '' Diaz said. "At that time, (Triple A) Durham had a more exciting atmosphere than Tropicana Field did."
Do the Pirates feed off the energy of big crowds• They are 7-5 in sellouts at PNC Park and 11-13 in front of 30,000-plus crowds on the road.
"It makes you feel good," Pirates announcer Steve Blass said. "But as far as making you play better• No. You should be playing just as good and trying just as hard with a small crowd. I never bought into that. It's wonderful. It makes you feel good. It's good for the city. It's good for everything. But I don't think it enhances performance."
FILLING THE SEATS
Prior to this year, the Pirates had drawn 39,000 fans to PNC Park four times:
Aug. 11, 2001: Tony Gwynn, 41, hits the 135th and final home run of his Hall of Fame career, a two-run shot in the sixth off starter Joe Beimel in a 6-2 Pirates' loss. A crowd of 39,392 (the PNC Park record until this year) saw the Pirates fall to 44-71.
April, 10, 2006: In front of 39,129 fans in the 2006 home opener, Dodgers centerfielder Jason Repko drove in a career-high tying four runs and Zach Duke allowed seven earned runs in an 8-3 Pirates' loss. The Pirates dropped to 1-7 under first-year manager Jim Tracy.
July, 10, 2008: In a rare interleague makeup game, the Pirates beat the Yankees, 4-2, before a crowd of 39,081. Nate McLouth's two-run homer off current Pirates reliever Jose Veras in the seventh broke a 2-2 tie.
April 5, 2010: In the 2010 home opener, Garrett Jones homered twice in a 11-5 rout of the Dodgers in front of 39,024. The Pirates would win only seven more games by six runs or more the rest of the season en route to 105 losses.
— John Grupp
ROB BIERTEMPFEL's COLUMN
Joel Hanrahan is on pace for 43 saves, which would be the most by a Pirates closer since Jose Mesa had 43 in 2004. But to get there, Hanrahan is going to need a few more save opportunities.
Since his first (and only) blown save on July 17, Hanrahan has nailed down four straight and has 30 saves this season. Trouble is, he's only gotten four chances in the 16 games leading up to last night's contest against the Cubs. At that rate, he'll get only 13 more save chances this season.
To stay physically sharp between infrequent outings, Hanrahan focuses on flat-ground work in his throwing program and occasional 15-pitch sessions on the bullpen mound. It also is important to stay mentally sharp.
"You have to keep believing in yourself," Hanrahan said. "You've got to treat every situation like it's a tight game, even when it's not."
Pitching in a non-save situation — even when necessary to get Hanrahan work — is not always as easy as it sounds.
"Obviously, you want to get 'em out," Hanrahan said. "But you don't want to use all your good stuff. You don't want to show them too much. Also, you just want to get the game over with, too."
MINOR-LEAGUE SPOTLIGHT: State college starter Stetson Allie
Control problems continue to plague right-hander Stetson Allie with Class A State College.
In his past three outings, the 2010 second-round pick has walked six batters and hit another five in just 2.1 innings. Throw in a wild pitch in Tuesday's 0.2-inning relief appearance, and the 6-foot-2 right-hander is rarely in the strike zone.
Pirates director of player development Kyle Stark said Allie's relief outing was planned, and he will work more in relief this summer. Allie, 20, had pitched fewer than 30 innings entering his senior year in high school at Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward in 2010.
"Stetson continues to work to solidify a repeatable delivery," Stark said. "This guy hasn't pitched much in his career, so he is working through that process. He's made some strides and needs to commit to those strides at this point."
Allie has given up nine earned runs for a 34.71 ERA in his past three appearances. For the season, Allie, who has a 100-mph fastball, has pitched 20.1 innings, allowing 20 hits and 20 walks while striking out 23. He is 0-2 with a 7.97 ERA.
"He's extremely competitive," Stark said. "It is tough to work through delivery adjustments when you're trying to get hitters out."
— John Grupp