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A sizzling start not imperative for Bucs

Sunday, April 8, 2012

It won't be easy for the Pirates to match the success they had in the first half of last season.

The Pirates own the most difficult April schedule in the majors. Twenty-two of their first 25 games are against teams that finished with winning records last year. All but nine of those games will be played on the road.

"Some teams get a good draw, and others get a bad draw," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We got a challenging one."

However, that challenge might not hamper the Pirates from staying in the division race or reaching their goal of 2 million-plus tickets sold as much as you might think.

The Pirates wrap up a three-game set against the Philadelphia Phillies today. They begin a nine-game West Coast swing Tuesday that figures to challenge the rotation and bullpen.

That's followed by a two-week stretch that includes six games against the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. There's also a four-game stop in Atlanta the site of last season's 19-inning debacle that seemingly ignited the Pirates' second-half slide.

That murderer's row doesn't faze veteran outfielder Nate McLouth.

"I don't think it makes a difference," he said. "But if I had to pick, I would rather get the tough part out of the way first. I've noticed that, a lot of times, good teams kind of turn it on a little bit later in the season."

Sometimes, McLouth said, a club will break camp and head into the start of the regular season battling a spring training hangover.

"Maybe you're not quite healthy, or you don't have all your parts yet," McLouth said. "I'd rather play a team early when they're not quite hitting on all cylinders than later in the season when they're rolling."

The Pirates opened the season without two important pieces of their rotation, right-handers A.J. Burnett (fractured orbital bone) and Charlie Morton (hip surgery). Morton is expected back April 14, and Burnett could join the rotation around the end of this month.

Perhaps the Pirates can contend in the NL Central even if they don't get off to a hot start.

"It's very important when you get off to one," manager Clint Hurdle said. "But what happens when you don't• Do you quit• No. I've had clubs that have gotten off to a fast start and then couldn't develop any momentum. And I've also had clubs that have gotten off to slow starts and then picked up momentum."

A year ago the Pirates were three games under .500 in April and went 13-13 in May. They didn't hit their stride until June. They peaked at 53-47 on July 25, the day before umpire Jerry Meals' snafu led to an extra-innings loss against the Braves.

July was also the month when Pirates ticket sales "exploded," said chief marketing officer Lou DePaoli. He said a sizzling start in April or even May doesn't have a big impact on overall ticket sales.

"It's more about where you are when you get into June," DePaoli said. "If you're playing well at that point, things will mushroom, like they did for us last year. June and July is when the rubber really meets the road for most people who buy tickets."

Before Opening Day 2011, ticket sales were up 19 percent from the same point in 2010. The rate fluctuated throughout the season, getting as high as plus-30 percent in early August. The Pirates finished with a ticket sale growth of 22 percent.

On Opening Day this year, ticket sales were 12 percent higher than they were a year ago, DePaoli said. Sales of full-season-equivalent ticket packages were up 35 percent.

The Pirates drew 1,940,429 fans last year, the fourth-best attendance in franchise history. Regardless of how well the Pirates fare during their April schedule, DePaoli is "pretty optimistic" the team will reach its targets of 2 million total attendance and 17 or more sellouts.

"There are a lot of tickets still to be sold, and a lot can happen between now and Oct. 3," he said, "but we're on the right pace to get there."




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