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BASEBALL Youngsters provide some spark as Pirates finish another awful season



Published: Sun, August 7, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE

PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- It's August, which means the Pirates are going where they're usually going this time of the year: Nowhere.

With the staggering San Diego Padres, who were 18-35 in their previous 53 games, in town, it appeared the Pirates might not be overmatched. They were -- losing two of three and being outscored, 31-19.

They were pummeled by the Padres Thursday at PNC Park, 12-7, which means since causing accelerated pulse rates among their loyalists by winning 30 of their first 60 games through June 11, the Pirates are 16-33.

To put that record in perspective, if a team had that kind of winning percentage over the course of a season it would lose 109 games.

If the Pirates continue on such a pace, and there's scant reason to believe they won't, they could challenge the 100-loss mark.

Veterans haven't played well

Mark Redman had another awful start and didn't finish the third inning. After being among the most effective pitchers in the league earlier in the season, Redman has been terrible. In his past nine starts, his earned run average is 8.03.

Of particular note was that Rob Mackowiak hit a home run, with two on in the ninth, and Daryle Ward did not. That means Mackowiak's streak of 89 at-bats without a homer has ended and Ward's run of futility, which stretches to June 7, has reached 170 at-bats.

Since raising his average to .358 June 11, Mackowiak is batting .171 (25 for 146).

Mackowiak and Ward are part-time players and manager Lloyd McClendon knows that. He badly overexposed both by playing them almost daily, although in the case of Ward he had no choice. General manager Dave Littlefield, who makes personnel decisions, elected to play a large stretch of the season with one first baseman on the roster. That's OK, only if the first baseman is Lou Gehrig.

By most accounts, a miserable final 53 games await the Pirates, whose starting rotation is mostly in a shambles.

Silver lining

But through all this misery, a sliver of hope exists. The Pirates actually have some young players who have a high major-league upside.

It would not be an exaggeration to state the future of the franchise depends on the development of these players. The Pirates don't have the money to attract the type of free agents who can upgrade their offense. Even if they did, most players choose not to cast their lot with a perennial loser.

Which makes pitcher Zach Duke (who won his fifth straight decision on Saturday), center fielder Chris Duffy, first baseman Brad Eldred and catcher Ryan Doumit crucial to the team's future success. Don't believe the talk that the team's minor league system is stacked and pay no heed to the winning records of those teams. The rosters of Class AA Altoona and Class A Lynchburg are loaded with overage non-prospects, who might improve the win-loss record of those teams but do little for the Pirates' future.

Duke already has arrived. He has been the most effective pitcher in baseball since being called up from Indianapolis last month. He won't continue to pitch as well as he has, but he should be a strength of the rotation for years to come.

The future of the other three players is less certain.

Good in the field

Duffy is a brilliant defensive player, the team's best center fielder since Andy Van Slyke. That's not saying much considering the quality of Van Slyke's successors, but this kid is special in the field.

He'll be as good as his bat carries him. With three hits vs. San Diego, he raised his batting average to .367. He won't continue at that pace. If he can hit .280, the job is his for as long as he wants it. If he can hit .265, he'd be acceptable.

"I thought he'd be an OK hitter," McClendon said. "So far he's been pretty darn good."

Eldred, who was hitless in three at-bats after a four-hit game Tuesday, has yet to show his spectacular power. He's batting .267 with no homers and four RBIs in 30 at-bats. With only 1,457 minor-league at-bats, he might not be ready for major-league pitching. But he's here and, until he shows he can't handle the job, should play first base almost every day.

If he figures out the pitching, he could be the first Pirate to lead the league in home runs since Willie Stargell.

Doumit has been a disappointment since being recalled June 5 from Indianapolis, where he was batting .345. He drove in two runs with a pinch-hit single Thursday to raise his batting average to .190. Reports that he was defensively deficient -- his nickname is some places is Ryan No-mitt -- were correct.

He has been in and out of the lineup and that has hurt his offense. The Pirates still want to play Humberto Cota but Doumit must get the majority of the starts. Cota looks to be nothing more than a journeyman. Doumit can be a star, a middle-of-the-lineup presence the team so badly needs.

There's not much left of this season for the Pirates, but watching the progress of Duke, Duffy, Eldred and Doumit lends significance to the games that remain.




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