Kovacevic: Get a grip on expectations
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Kevin Correia fell apart after two outs, Daniel McCutchen's wild pitch to a pitcher scored a run, the hitters kept flailing, the infield throws kept sailing, and 35,601 left PNC Park yesterday with long faces. Add it up, multiply by 10, and that's pretty much the impact of the 7-3 loss to San Diego that carried this mega-meltdown into double digits and capped maybe the most deflating homestand in the franchise's 125 years.
"Honestly, something like this, losing 10 in a row, that's tough under any circumstance," shortstop Brandon Wood told me in another music-free clubhouse. "But to do this after being in first place ... man, that hurts."
It has stung the fan base, too, including the newcomers. And some are outright angry, barking on talk shows, booing rookies, blaming the manager for unsalvageable lineups, calling Jerry Meals' safe call a curse and ... well, maybe this is a good time for everyone to get a grip.
Refocus on 82, I say.
An 82-win season remains in reach at 54-59, and it would be a shame to see this group come this far only to lug that ignominious streak into a 19th year. Eighty-two wins would represent a 25-game improvement over 57-105 last year, matching the greatest in franchise history set in 1891-92.
Here are 10 areas, in order of importance, the Pirates still can address to view this season as a success:
10. Stop the bunts. Now.
Yeah, this is small, but there is something terribly incongruous about an offense with Major League Baseball's fifth-lowest on-base percentage, .311, having the second-most sacrifice bunts (59) and fifth-most caught-stealings (38). And this is to say nothing of other baserunning blunders.
Whatever school taught Clint Hurdle his bunting philosophy was boarded up long ago. Outs are gold.
9. Sign the No. 1 pick.
It's been under the public radar because of the major league team's rise and fall, but the Pirates have until a week from today to sign No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole, the flame-throwing right-hander from UCLA. That could cost into eight figures and represent the greatest single expenditure in franchise history.
This isn't optional.
8. Extend Neal Huntington.
I know team president Frank Coonelly has tried to downplay his general manager working deep into a lame-duck season by saying, "I expect Neal will be here for many years to come."
Fine, so grab a pen and get it done. It's starting to get weird.
7. Get rid of Joel Hanrahan.
Or threaten to do so, anyway.
Huntington's first task once he gets extended could be to issue a use-Hanrahan-or-lose-him decree to Hurdle, who inexplicably, indefensibly allowed his All-Star closer to fiddle -- just 4 1⁄3 cameo innings out of 125 innings pitched these past 13 games -- while the season burned to the ground.
It's about wins, not saves.
6. Settle the outfield.
When Jose Tabata and Alex Presley return, their performance could help dictate the Pirates' offensive approach for years to come: Should Huntington build an outfield on speed or power?
I know this: I want to see more of Presley, even if Ryan Ludwick sits.
5. Fix Pedro Alvarez.
Even if it means sending him down the rest of this month.
I've maintained from the outset that nothing in 2011 matters more to the Pirates' future than Alvarez, their only power-hitting prospect, making significant strides. Nothing has changed that view, but much more time at the Mendoza Line -- he's at .206 -- could begin to change the outlook.
4. Sustain the starters.
Correia is a shadow of an All-Star, Charlie Morton and James McDonald can't get through six or seven innings, and even Jeff Karstens and Paul Maholm have shown kinks. We'll know before long if the team's most instrumental area was a mirage.
3. Beat the Brewers.
At least once, you know?
Hurdle and his players have blown through a lot of barriers, but this one will be wholly intact when they reach Milwaukee next weekend: The Brewers have won all five meetings this season, 33 of the past 36.
2. Make the playoffs.
This is absurd, of course, with the Pirates now 10 games back. But there's no good reason for this group to shift focus. The next 16 games are against the other three teams atop the Central Division, and a surge would at least restore some of that contending feeling .
Besides, as Hurdle said yesterday when I asked about long-term goals, "Hey, we're not dealing with today's game well."
1. Win 82.
I'll save you the math: They need to go 28-21 the rest of the way.
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