Sunday, July 24, 2011

A turning point in franchise history?

It may have been the biggest play of the 2004 ALCS, which makes it one of the biggest plays in the history of the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox had been down 3-0 in the best-of-seven series to the New York Yankees It was the bottom of the ninth and the Bronx Bombers were ahead 4-3. Boston's Kevin Millar drew a walk to give the Sox a baserunner and manager Terry Francona didn't hesitate to insert Dave Roberts into the game as a pinch runner.

After three pickoff attempts by Yanks' closer Mariano Rivera, Roberts broke for second base on the first pitch to Boston's Bill Mueller ... and he just slipped in past the tag of Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. The Boston crown came to life. The Yankees weren't a machine. The Red Sox had life. Mueller's single scored Roberts to tie the game. The rest is history. David Ortiz homered to win Game 4 and the Red Sox didn't lose another game on their way to the World Series title, their first title in 86 years. Hope sprung from the depths of defeat and the Sox rode the momentum. A stolen base changed baseball history.

Fast-forward to July 24, 2011 and the Pittsburgh Pirates are desperate. The team hasn't had a winning season in 18 years. The joy of an appearance in first place for the first time since 1992 is fading into despair as the Bucs fall twice, in rather devastating fashion, to division-rival St. Louis in front of a pair of sell-out crowds with another watching on. The thoughts are turning negative on the team and the town after a small glimmer of hope snuck into the dog days of summer. Then came Xavier Paul to the plate.

The team's fifth outfielder came up with one out in the No. 9 spot after entering as a defensive replacement. On a 2-2 count, Paul hit a routine groundball toward first base that was fielded by Cards' first baseman Albert Pujols. The speedy Paul bolted up the line as St. Louis pitcher Mitchell Boggs stepped first and then, after seeing Paul, accelerated toward first base. The toss from Pujols got the ball to Boggs in time for the out. But Boggs didn't make it there first. It was Paul, legging out an infield single.

A single brought to life the sell-out crowd at PNC Park. And the Bucs themselves. On Boggs' next pitch, Paul broke for second base. Cardinals catcher Gerald Laird's throw was left of the second-base bag and dribbled into center field. Paul, in seemingly one motion, slide into the base, popped up and took off for third, beating the throw easily.

And the crowd came to life again. For a team that had scored just 12 runs runs in their last six games and not had a home run in seven straight, this was just the opening they needed to steal a turn the save their season. Every game means the same at the end of a season but for a team who is headed on a seven-game road trip to face the best of the National League, this was necessary. After battling a division foe that simply dominated you on your turf at your first shot at relevency with the national media starting to pay attention, this one wasn't optional.

And the suspense didn't last long. Maligned rookie Chase d'Arnaud, already with an RBI-double in this game, has struggled since his promotion. His seven defensive miscues in the field had already made them vulnerable in one game on this homestand and his .228 batting average (including .148 with runners in scoring position) had many calling for his return to the minor leagues.

But it was d'Arnaud that flared a hard fly ball to centerfield. Paul backpedaled to tag up and bolted as soon as centerfielder Colby Rasmus made the catch. Paul easily cruised in and the crowd sprung to their feet.

Maybe this win isn't Game 4 of the ALCS. Maybe the Bucs travel to Atlanta and Philly and succumb to the up-start Braves and the aces in Philadelphia. But just maybe -- maybe -- this one means a little more.

It's going to be exciting to watch and find out. And for another day in late July, even if it's by percentage points, the Pirates regain first place in the NL Central.

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