While the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates are still soaking up the Spring Training sun and enjoying low-pressure baseball in the Grapefruit League, a ravenous fan base awaits them in Pittsburgh, PA. This particular Spring has reignited the fire in even the most skeptical Pirates fans, with the addition of SP A.J. Burnett (for a few days, at least) and the recent contract agreement with franchise phenom Andrew McCutchen. Many fans are expecting the Pirates to compete in 2012 and for the first time in years, baseball is paramount on the minds of Pittsburgh fans in March – a time usually reserved for a Pitt Panthers NCAA Tournament bid and the endless mock drafting of potential Steelers draft picks.
Fans have quickly forgotten the 18-38 fallout last August and September that quickly buried the surprising Pirates in the N.L. Central standings. After a magical first-half ride in 2011 and the surreal moves made by the club over the past few weeks, Pirates fans are ready to rock PNC Park right out of the gate in 2012. With that in mind, it is imperative to note that the first 30 days of the Pirates 2012 season is one of the most daunting opening salvos the franchise has faced in many moons. As we learned last season, momentum is a tangible advantage for these young Pirates. A quick start in April could launch the team into a summer-long battle with the Cardinals/Brewers/Reds of the world for dominance of the much-weakened N.L. Central. On the other hand, the “house of cards” effect could unravel the team if they stumble during the first month. The bullpen could be overworked early, players could push themselves too far mentally and physically causing injuries, and the season could be over before it starts.
Manager Clint Hurdle will need to do his best work under the banner of the Jolly Roger in April, because the league did not do the Pirates any favors.
The Bucs will start off the 2012 season with a three game homestand against a Philadelphia Phillies team that won 102 games in 2011. The first three starting pitchers the young Bucs will see in 2012 – Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. Barring any Spring Training injuries, the Phillies will bring their big guns into PNC Park on April 5-8 to open the season. That will be a major challenge for a Pirates team that will still be wondering exactly what they have offensively, and will be without their De facto ace – A.J. Burnett. Once the Pirates are finished with the defending N.L. East Champions, they will embark on a monster west-coast road trip that comes surprisingly early this season. A travel day on April 9th will be the preamble to a 9-game swing through Los Angeles, San Fransisco, and Arizona – the top three teams in the N.L. West a year ago. Match-ups with 2011 N.L. Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and a very underrated Arizona Diamondbacks starting rotation will be on the docket during that road trip. In past years the west coast trip has acted as a barometer for the Pirates, usually coming later in the season after the team has had a chance to define roles and shuffle ineffective pieces around. In 2012, the Bucs will be test their mettle in mid-April – a trip that will either bring the team together or rip them apart.
Unfortunately, it won’t get much easier when the Bucs return to the friendly banks of the three rivers. The defending World Series champions come to town April 20-23, giving the Pirates their first look at an Albert Pujols-less St. Louis Cardinals team. Despite the loss of Pujols and eternal Manager Tony LaRussa, the Cardinals still pack a solid lineup and should provide the Pirates a preview of where they stack up with the predominant “big dogs” of the division. Once St. Louis leaves town, the Pirates will jump right into a series with the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies are coming off a rough 2011 and are one of the expert favorites to experience a turn around this season, with bonafide superstars SS Troy Tulowitzki and OF Carlos Gonzalez leading the way. Many fans will remember the Rockies coming into PNC Park for an early April series last season and taking 3-of-4 games from the Bucs. This Rockies team has added veteran leadership in C Ramon Hernandez, SS Marco Scutaro, and RF Michael Cuddyer and will be looking to make some noise after finishing forth last season in the N.L. West.
The Pirates will enjoy another early-season travel day on April 26th before touching down in Atlanta to renew their rivalry with the Atlanta Braves. Many attribute the rapid decline of the 2011 Pirates to the “Jerry Meals Game” on July 26. That 19-inning affair ended on one of the worst calls in Major league history, effectively taking the steam out of a Pirates team that was fighting to maintain their momentum heading into the dog days of summer. The Pirates-Braves rivalry has been hotly contested since that infamous night in October 1992, and this is a 4-game series to end April that looms large on the schedule. The Pirates will head straight to St. Louis from Atlanta to play a 3-game set at Busch Stadium before coming home for a weekend series with the Cincinnati Reds to close out the first full month of the season.
It’s hard to imagine the schedule-making Gods could have dealt the Bucs a tougher first month if they tried. The Pirates will see seven of the top eight National League teams from 2011 during that first month, with only the ruthless Milwaukee Brewers still to come. The Pirates won’t see Milwaukee until June, another quirk of the 2012 schedule. Because of that, Pirates fans will get a complete fill of the Brew Crew in late August and September when the teams play nine games in a three-week span. Such is the nature of MLB scheduling in 2012.
Pirates fans should have a solid idea of the team they have after the first month of the season, and if the Bucs can hold court (.500) until they reach May, they will be rewarded with some easier opposition. Until then, be prepared to see some of the best the National League has to offer.