Thursday, August 16, 2012

A.J. Burnett cordially invites you

Yesterday, Nils and I were sitting in a little watering hole down on the South Side following another heart-breaking loss for the Charcoal Nanners (official kickball team of Free Tank Carter), when topic inevitably turned to the Pirates' ongoing regression. I nearly melted down.

Right now, this team's clock reads 11:59. These guys have been unraveling since the break. The offense has disappeared and returned in spurts. The breakout pitcher who was one of the game's best in the first half is facing a relegation to bullpen duty. The relievers are walking guys at a normal, human clip again. Juan Cruz's neck exploded. Rod Barajas continues to play in way more games than he deserves to, and Michael McKenry continues to happily ride the pine 75 percent of the time because he's just a great team guy. The Padres made the Pirates look like the Padres -- or the Pirates made the Padres look like the 2003 Pirates; I'm not really sure how this simile goes, but they have Kip Wells now, so you get the idea.

And part of what's made me feel so fatalistic about the way the Bucs are playing right now, in addition to the piling on from the Nanners' summer season-ending loss, was the same thing that we were all fuming about in April and May. This is the offense? Really? This? And how bright is the future if Indy's getting shut out for six straight games? There are no bats in this system at all, and even the trio of golden arms can't change that right now. Oh, by the way, Tony Sanchez can't hit and Josh Bell's knee exploded. Even if Cole, Taillon and Heredia all pan out, which they won't, we're still looking kinda fucked here. Again, yeah, it's been fun, but I was one of the people happily ignoring the third-order winning percentage in June and July because I wanted so badly for this year to be different. In a sense, it will be. Unless the Pirates turn into Jerry Manuel's Mets, this will be the year the Streak ends. And that's great. But we flew too close to the sun on the wings of Andrew McCutchen's outrageously high BABIP. This organization, while incredibly better than it was five years ago, still won't be in a position to contend two, three, four years down the road unless they suddenly find hitters, and that's not something they've done at all to this point.

The Reds are loaded with bats. St. Louis is better this year than they were last year, and they're closing in. If they get into the playoffs, they can win the whole thing. Milwaukee is down, but won't be for long. The Astros are leaving the division, and the Cubs, mercifully, are and will continue to be garbage. Point is, this has been fun. It's been amazing. And I've tried to keep my optimism tempered, but I've been just as caught up in getting used to the Pirates being over .500 as everyone. I'm not sure that this team will contend next year. This is still ostensibly the same team that in March, I said would win 77, and Nils, a statistician so statistical that he has a goddamn PhD in statistics, said 68. Sixty-eight!

I guess this is all just a long way of saying that 19 years of ignominy have not made your favorite FTC authors immune to the occasional crises of faith and confidence. I was having one of of those crises yesterday.

Today, A.J. Burnett snapped me out of it.

Hanley Ramirez didn't go about his business while rounding the bases after his shot off Burnett in the fourth, and Burnett was visibly peeved. Hanley hit again in the sixth, and this is where a lot of pitchers, if they were going to retaliate at all, would drill a guy, because baseball is stupid like that.

Burnett didn't do that. He struck out Ramirez on a big, sweeping breaking ball, then told him in no uncertain terms to "Sit the Fuck Down."

This moved me. I had goosebumps for fifteen minutes after watching this. I don't know why I was so surprised. Burnett's done this kind of thing all year, and in just this way. He's so much better than everyone else at not giving a fuck, and in being that way, he gives more of a fuck than anyone has ever given a fuck. The level of this man's play and competitiveness are inspiring. He's the quiet, badass kid who kicks the shit out of the playground bully.

Not in my lifetime has anyone ever been this guy for the Pirates. Plenty of guys have talked about not letting other teams push the Bucs around, but those guys have mainly been terrible managers. I love this guy. And if he comes back next year and allows eight runs per start, I'll still love him. He's a sure-fire FTC first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.

Sure, we might not be looking at playoffs this year. And we might not next year. And we might regress to the mean from now until next July. But A.J. Burnett is not going to allow complacency. He will not stand for it.

Thanks for the shot in the arm, dude.

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