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Pirates defenseless against themselves

By all accounts, the Pirates had a successful opening weekend series at Wrigley Field, taking two of three from the Chicago Cubs – the two road victories only 15 fewer than they had in all of 2010.

They displayed timely hitting, beginning with Neil Walker’s Opening Day grand slam and culminating with Pedro Alvarez’ two-run infield-single in the 9th inning of the rubber match on Sunday.

They also had quality starting pitching, as Kevin Correia provided six strong innings in the 6-3 Opening Day win, and Paul Maholm followed with 6-2/3 shutout innings in the middle game of the series. Even Ross Ohlendorf, who gave up four runs in six innings on Sunday, left the team in a position to win – which they did, 5-4 – by limiting the damage done.

If nothing else, the offense proved that they are up to the task of improving on last season, in which they finished second to last in all of baseball in hits, runs, and average; and the pitching staff proved that, for at least the first week of the season, they won’t be the worst in the league.

The defense, however, is another story.

In all three games in Chicago, the Pirates gloves attempted to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They succeeded in their efforts only once, playing a key role in Saturday’s 5-3 loss. Evan Meek took the brunt of the blame that game, but he wasn’t helped by right fielder Garrett Jones, who decided to play a ball off the wall in the five-run 8th inning instead of trying to make the catch, or first baseman Lyle Overbay, who had a routine grounder roll up his arm on the next play, leading to three unearned runs.

In 2009, under the tutelage of infield coach Perry Hill, the Pirates had only 73 errors, the fewest in the league. In 2010, with Hill gone, they committed a league leading 127 errors. The hope was that this season, with the addition of Overbay at first, a full season of Chris Snyder behind the plate, and more seasoning for Alvarez at third and Walker at second, they would perform closer to their 2009 form.

That thought was quickly put to rest in the first inning of game one.

After one out, Alvarez misplayed one ground ball and threw away another, which Overbay failed to even try to make a play on, allowing the ball to sail into right field. Things didn’t get much better from there, with the Pirates infield allowing two pop ups to fall untouched onto the infield grass later in the game.

Still, the Pirates managed to win in spite of their defensive blunders.

Afterwards, manager Clint Hurdle, who believed both pop ups were Alvarez’ plays to make, said if one player isn’t up for the task, another one will take the plays from him.  

“Those were Pedro’s balls,” Hurdle told reporters in regard to both pop ups. “They’re going to become Cedeño’s balls if Pedro can’t take ownership of them.”

Not so fast, Clint. That might not be a successful solution, either.

In Sunday’s win, the Pirates once again won in spite of defensive deficiencies – with Cedeño’s play front-and-center.  After the Pirates took the lead off Cubs closer Carlos Marmol in the 9th, Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan served up what should have been a game-ending 6-4-3 double play. Cedeño charged, picked the ball smoothly, and threw on target to Jones – who unfortunately was playing right field.

He redeemed himself on the very next pitch when Hanrahan again served up a 6-4-3 game-ender, this time with Cedeño cleanly making the play.

But on most nights, he won’t get that shot at redemption. One out of two is exceptional at the plate – not so much in the field.

Offense and pitching can, and will, have off nights, but the good teams bring their gloves every game. The good teams also bail each other out after a mistake is made, as Walker did on Friday and as Hanrahan did on Sunday. But the Pirates lack the pitching and the firepower on offense to be able to do that on a consistent basis. They also lack sure-handed defenders in whom there is confidence that, when the ball is hit in their direction, the play will be made.

Hurdle has said on many occasions that he “believes in 27 outs.” The question is how many innings it takes for the Pirates to reach that total. On Saturday, it only took eight, as the defense gave at least three extra outs to the Cubs. Unless there is a drastic change, that trend is likely to continue.

The truth is, through the first series the Pirates were fortunate that the defensive gaffes were overshadowed by Walker’s heroics on Friday, Meek’s misplaced fastballs on Saturday, and the Cubs not taking advantage of the Pirates mistakes on Sunday.   

For the remainder of the season, the Pirates likely won’t be so lucky, and the defensive deficiencies will be the main storyline, not a side story.

One-hundred-and-sixty-two games is a long season, and not all defensive gaffes, such as bad routes in the outfield or misjudged pop ups, will show up in the box score.

But rest assured they will eventually show up in the loss column.

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