'New' Pirates win third in a row
CHICAGO — The Pirates would not have won this game last year.
Manager Lloyd McClendon admitted as much after his team overcame a controversial home run call and spoiled the Chicago Cubs' home-opener Friday afternoon with a 2-1 victory at Wrigley Field.
In last year's 100-loss albatross of a season, if Sammy Sosa's disputed home run had put the Pirates in a sixth-inning hole, they wouldn't have immediately bounced back with two runs, let alone have that one-run lead hold up for a third consecutive victory.
"Probably not," McClendon said. "One of the things that was hard to get accomplished in my first year was a change of attitude. When you've been beaten down so much, the easiest thing to say is, What's going to happen today for us to lose•
"I don't think our guys accept that anymore. They are more determined than ever."
The Pirates showcased that determination in the seventh inning. Moments after Sosa was credited with a homer on a fly ball that apparently never left the friendly confines, the Pirates pulled off another comeback win that ensures them of at least a .500 record on this season-opening six-game road trip.
Chicago native Rob Mackowiak doubled home the tying run and scored the eventual game-winner on Jack Wilson's infield single.
The bullpen polished off the four-hitter, as McClendon used six relievers to get the final nine outs and preserve the win for Dave Williams (1-0).
It was another step in the Pirates' attempt to disassociate themselves with last year's collection that tied the Tampa Bay Devil Rays with the worst record in the major leagues.
The Pirates are off to their best start since 1996 — likewise a 3-1 beginning. They are two games above .500 for the first time since July 2, 1999, and occupy at least a share of the National League Central lead.
"We've been beat down quite a bit," McClendon said. "The experts have deemed us the lousiest team in the history of baseball, so that kind of really lights a fire in our guys."
Such was the case after the sixth when the Pirates answered Sosa's disputed solo shot with two runs of their own.
"Maybe that got everyone riled up and a made us a little angry," Mackowiak said.
Sosa was credited with his third homer of the year on a ball that replays showed hit the top of the basket above the ivy-covered wall and dropped back onto the field.
Initially, Sosa was held at first by first-base umpire Larry Young, who ruled that the ball didn't clear the basket. The Cubs protested and, after the umpiring crew convened, the call was reversed.
While Sosa circled the bases, McClendon sprinted from the dugout to present his case. He was upset that Young, the closest umpire to the play, was outvoted, although he understood the rationale behind the decision.
"I'm not knocking it," he said. "The one thing I will applaud the umpires for is that they got together and did what they thought was right. They thought they were making the right call, not to save face, but to get the call right."
Even if the ball was not a home run.
"It was a single, I swear to God," said Mackowiak, who had frame-by-frame video analysis to support his claim. "It hit the top of the fence and bounced back down. There's a one in a million chance of that happening."
The "homer" was only the second hit permitted by Williams, who finished the inning by making Fred McGriff his career-high eighth strikeout victim.
It was a swift turnaround from spring training when Williams compiled a 9.00 ERA in five starts.
"For me, spring training is a time to see what I can do and what I can't do," Williams said. "I had to keep the ball down, and that's what I tried to do today."
Cubs starter Jason Bere (0-1) took a two-hit shutout into the seventh, but Aramis Ramirez doubled with one out for his second of three hits.
Mackowiak, hitless in eight at-bats this season as he stepped in, hit a flare to left that dropped in for an RBI double.
McClendon couldn't say enough about Mackowiak, a former 53rd-round draft pick who was playing only because of an injury to Brian Giles.
"Rob probably represents what we're all about, the heart and soul of what we're trying to accomplish," McClendon said. "We're overmatched in a lot of instances, but I don't think spiritually we are. He's part of that heart we're looking for. He's a young man who gives his all when he's out there. He's not as talented as a lot of people. But put him between the lines and he becomes a bulldog."
Mackowiak moved to third on a passed ball. Kevin Young struck out, but Wilson skipped a grounder off the mound and beat second baseman Delino DeShields' throw to the bag.
Wilson said the winning attitude provided by players such as Pokey Reese and Armando Rios has become contagious.
"Those guys have been there before and have seen a lot of comebacks," Wilson said. "We might think that it was a terrible call and how could they call that on us. But these guys are like, 'Let's go, let's get it back,' which is exactly what we needed."
What McClendon needed, with the one-run lead, was nine more outs. It took him six relievers to get there.
When Sean Lowe loaded the bases in the seventh, Joe Beimel was brought in to get the third out. Four relievers, including Beimel, were used in the eighth. Mike Williams finished it off, pitching a perfect ninth for his third save in as many days.
Williams tasted his share of winning and losing last season, the latter with the Pirates and the former when he was traded to the Houston Astros.
Judging by the smile on his face, it wasn't difficult to tell which side he prefers.
"It's better to win three than lose three," he said. "The beer seems colder and it sure tastes better."