Can Ryan Church Lead Revival of the Pirates?

Church prepares to pinch hit for Pirate pitcher Zach Duke.

Ryan Church is yet another highly touted player who fell on some bad luck during his career.  Like many players on the Pittsburgh Pirate roster, Church has a story to tell.  He was a front runner for Rookie of the Year in the 2005 season until he ran into the outfield wall at PNC Park in June.  He was hitting .325 and was slugging at a .544 clip.  He never recovered from kissing the green cushions at PNC and made two trips to the DL. 

A few years later, Church would suffer some serious head injuries which seemed to have greatly impact his potential.  Mixed in between, were some hot streaks, but more and more evident were the long dry spells.

He returned to PNC Park yesterday, but this time as a Pittsburgh Pirate and entered the game as a pinch hitter for Pirate starter Zach Duke.  Church delivered a three-run double at the absolute perfect time.  Could a healthy Church be what the Bucs young roster needs?  Let’s check it out in some more detail.

In 2009, Church fell out of favor with the Mets.  It was not what Mets fans had expected from Church.  Most were thinking he would repeat his 2008 early season success.    For a while he did deliver, teasing the Mets faithful during the month of April by hitting .313 with a homer and 8 RBI’s.

He then went stone cold in May hitting just .224.  He also had an interesting relationship with Manager Jerry Manuel in New York who showed his support for the Mets’ signing of Gary Sheffield just before the start of the regular season.  The Sheffield move cut into Church’s playing time more than anyone else’s. Even as Church got off to the good start at the plate. 

Church also received some strong words regarding a baserunning gaffe.  Long story short, Manuel said he ”could have strangled him after he missed third base.” 

But perhaps it was as simple as this.  Church hated Citi Field.  Church batted .216 and had a tiny .576 OPS in New York.  Church seemed to be more like the traveling preacher.  He held impressive performances in the oppositions’ ball parks where he hit .326 and had an OPS of .804.  

Church was traded for Jeff Francoeur in July.  Church finished the year hitting .260 with 2 home runs and 18 RBI’s for the Braves.  The Bucs signed him this winter.

Let’s take a look at his career from 2006-2008.  It won’t take long.

2006:    It was a lost year for Church.  He never seemed to recover from his trips to the disabled list during his rookie season.

2007:   Church had a breakout year with a .272/.464/.813.  In November, the Nats traded him to the Mets for Lastings Milledge.

2008:  The head injuries begin.

Concussion I came in a Spring training game in March against the Dodgers.  Marlon Anderson and Church collided.  Church said he couldn’t remember the collision and it was deemed a Grade II concussion.   A week off is recommended after a Grade II concussion.

Umpire Jerry Meals calls for time as Mets second baseman Ruben Gotay attends to first baseman Marlon Anderson (l.) and right fielder Ryan Church after their fourth-inning collision.

Concussion II came shortly thereafter on May 20. Most of you probably remember the horrific video.  Church had his melon scrambled by the bony knee of Yunel Escobar.  Church then slid about eight feet.  He performed the slide face first on the infield dirt.  Scary stuff.

Ryan Church heads back to the DL as he can't shake effects of second concussion.

Church had got off to a hot start by hitting .307 with 11 home runs and 36 RBI’s, but the May 20 collision turned him ice cold.  Church ended the second half batting .219 with 2 home runs and 13 RBI’s. 

It appeared the second concussion was too much.  Church said he felt his “brain swishing around.”

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The big question for us is simply, is he better physically and will his back holdup?

Also, will he know his role on the team?  That of a bench player that provides options if the Pirates talent in the outfield should fail to produce.

If those answers are yes, then will he embrace the role he has earned with the Bucs?   One game into the season, it looks like Church is going to be a leader.  He received some votes in an informal poll as a team leader.   

A team meeting was held in Philadelphia this past weekend.  Church seemed to be right in the middle of the organization of the players only dinner.  It is the rah, rah stuff that some fans simply don’t believe.  I think Church is trying to set a tone along with the other veterans on the squad.  It is refreshing to see. 

Wipe the slate clean.  Sure, that’s a good idea.  But it’s hard to execute. 

Church appears to me to be showing a different approach. Unquestionably, he has a puzzling situation to contend with in Pittsburgh.  The players haven’t done much.  Church hasn’t done much thanks to all the injuries we discussed.  But think to some of the recent veteran acquisitions by the Pirates who really didn’t know what the hell was expected of them in Pittsburgh. I think of Eric Hinske.  What was his problem?

Remember, for unknown reasons, I have read that communication was not a strong point in the Pirates  organization.   I guess a players meeting would be a good thing in such dire situations.  I also trust there aren’t any Perry Hill type mixed messages sent to Church which could come back and bite the Bucs.  I simply trust Church knows and relishes the important role he has on the club.

Having Church certainly sends a message that the Pirate FO isn’t going to wait forever for the young talent to produce.   Hell, there is nothing wrong with bringing in a player that has  Ryan Churchs’ makeup.  He has played well defensively and provides the most experience in a very young Pirate OF.  Can he find his stroke again?  Can he be a 15HR guy this year? 

We applaud the Church move at it’s core, because it strengthens the team. It certainly paid immediate rewards yesterday.   Many fans will believe it to be one of the better moves of the FO.  But let me tell you, he better play hard throughout the season, or he needs to go.  The last thing this young Pirate team needs is a distraction, a Hinske, a Monroe, ok…I will stop there.   So far, so good for Church.

So, let’s revisit this topic around the middle of May.  I am anxious to see if Church has some believers.

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$ USELESS BAR TRIVIA:  Ryan Church made the final out in Shea Stadium.

$ Ryan Church.  Baseball Reference.

$ The nothing to do with Church link:  Hottest Celeb Baseball Fansincluding Alyssa Milano with her LA Dodgers shirt back on.  Marissa Miller, hell, Whitney Port has the tightest jeans ever.  The pics include hot chicks sure, but there are about five Dodger ”fans.”  Maybe you don’t want to check them out.

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