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A dismal start to the season



Published: Wed, April 6, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



PITTSBURGH -- Opening Day can bring out the best and worst in baseball fans.

During the Milwaukee Brewers' five-run outburst in the sixth inning on Monday at PNC Park, one upper deck partisan shouted a sarcastic message to Bucs manager Lloyd McClendon during the first pitching change of the season.

"Hey Lloyd," the fan screamed, "I live for this!"

The fan was referring to Major League Baseball's latest motto that was printed along the third base line. (Apparently the old motto -- Steroids in Baseball? -- has been shelved.)

It's not hard to target the inning that irritated Pirates fans the most during a 9-2 loss to the team considered to be the Bucs' top challenger for last place in the National League Central Division.

With a 4-2 lead in the top of the sixth inning, the Brewers packaged four hits with two walks, a bunt over charging third baseman Ty Wigginton's head, an uncontested stolen base and a throwing error by shortstop Jack Wilson into five runs.

Even though the Bucs had four more at-bats, it was over, especially with Ben Sheets on the mound in Milwaukee.

Ray of hopehidden behind clouds

What a contrast it was from a year ago when the Bucs defeated the Philadelphia Phillies, 2-1, with former Phillies (and Indians) closer Jose Mesa getting the save.

Unlike Opening Day 2004 when Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy played Santa Claus with contract extensions, optimism was subdued on Monday.

Last April, McClatchy gave General Manager Dave Littlefield and McClendon a vote of confidence with extended pacts.

McClendon, now in his fifth season as Bucs skipper, has a club option for 2006. But with a 281-365 record in his first four seasons (including 72-89 in 2004), McClendon's seat is growing hotter.

It's not McClendon's fault that the Pirates -- again -- have one of the majors' smallest payrolls. After the Bucs shed catcher Jason Kendall's $34 million contract in a trade with Oakland, some thought they would pursue high-caliber free agents rather than the retreads they've been targeting for about four seasons.

For every Mesa who comes along and does well, there seems to be three like the Raul Mondesi experiment of April 2004. Remember Mondesi (now an Atlanta Brave)? He batted third in that game against the Phillies, played for about two more weeks then flipped out and abandoned the team, earning his release in early May. Later, he resurfaced with the Anaheim Angels.

More money,fewer names

Despite the payroll flexibility the Kendall trade generated and revenue from increased season ticket sales (the All-Star Game will be played at PNC Park in 2006), the Pirates have done little to bolster their 2005 lineup.

Yes, the Bucs now have Matt Lawton, a huge improvement over Tike Redman as leadoff hitter. The Pirates received pitchers Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes in the Kendall deal, then sent Rhodes to Cleveland for Lawton.

Lawton had three singles in his first three at-bats as a Bucco.

Now, Tike Redman, with 13 career homers in 257 games, is batting third.

"We like contact and speed at the top of the order," McClendon said of his top four lineup of Lawton, Jack Wilson, Redman and Jason Bay, the 2004 National League Rookie of the year. "Hopefully, today was a good education of what speed can do. With Matt on base, I thought Jack had quite a few fastballs to hit.

"Speed at the top of the order means [the next] guys are going to get some good pitches to hit and hopefully drive in some runs for us," McClendon said.

Wilson and Redman went 1-for-4 each while Bay had two hits, including a two-out RBI single in the first inning.

About Redman, McClendon said, "I thought he swung the bat extremely well as did Bay."

Batting problemssurface later

The Pirates' batting problems came after Bay as starters Daryle Ward, Ty Wigginton and Jose Castillo combined to go 0-for-11 in the fifth, sixth and seventh spots.

"We had nine hits, but most came form only a few guys," Bay said. "So if we hit the ball like that and get some other contributions, we'll be fine offensively."

Catcher Benito Santiago, 40, who was acquired from Kansas City to help school 26-year-old Humberto Cota, had two hits in the eight hole, including a second-inning triple with two outs.

On defense, Santiago looked every day of his age when he threw poorly to second base trying to nail base stealer Brady Clark in the third inning.

Of course on Opening Day last year, no one knew how Bay and Perez would blossom into the Bucs' most promising young stars while Wilson won enjoy a breakout year at the plate. It's possible someone else -- Wigginton, Redman, Craig Wilson -- will enjoy similar success.

For now, it's hard looking past a disappointing blowout loss to one of the worst teams in the majors.

Maybe today will be a better day at the ballpark.

XTom Williams is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write him at williams at Vindy.com.




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