Pirates' comeback win over Giants reminded long-time fans how different this team can be

Call the Pentagon. 3 Cruz missiles sighted at PNC Park.
Pittsburgh Pirates v San Francisco Giants
Pittsburgh Pirates v San Francisco Giants / Lachlan Cunningham/GettyImages

Dave Parker debuted for the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 12 1973. At 6 feet 5 inches, he towered over his teammates and most other Major League Baseball players of that time.  If you believe the Topps baseball cards, Parker’s weight of 230 pounds was even heavier than Willie Stargell’s alleged 225 pounds in 1973. But despite that size and heft, Parker could run fast, throw hard, and, of course, hit.  He hit for average. He hit for power. Although Parker went 0-for-4 in his debut, the Pirates still beat the San Diego Padres in that game 4 to 0. After the game, Pirates then shortstop Dal Maxvill, who stood 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighed 157 pounds, was asked what he thought of the Pirates’ new right fielder. Said Maxville: “I don’t know what it is, but I’m glad it’s on our side.”

Watching the Pirates this year, I’m beginning to get the same sense of excitement about Oneil Cruz and Paul Skenes that Dal Maxvill must have felt when he was first introduced to Dave Parker. Only for Pirates fans, it’s not only the exhilarating feeling of, “I’m glad they’re on our side,” but also a feeling of incredulity: “Can you believe the Pirates have these guys?” 

Cruz and Skenes can do things that most mortal baseball players cannot. And, let’s face it, in the past 44 years, the Pirates have had very few of these types of elite players. Andrew McCutchen and Barry Bonds perhaps complete a very short list of elite players who've worn a Pirates uniform in the past 44 years.

But now the Pirates potentially have two elite players in Skenes and Cruz, and Pittsburgh fans have a front row seat to this for the next couple of years. How lucky are we?  Are the baseball gods finally rewarding us for the last 44 years of futility that has preceded this season?   

Pirates fans should be thankful for Oneil Cruz, Paul Skenes

Of course, it doesn’t stop at just Cruz and Skenes. Because Jared Jones has burst onto the scene as well, and is also doing things that other mortal baseball players cannot. 

Rum Bunter's Ethan Fisher chronicled Skenes' second start against the Cubs, a start in which Skenes struck out 11 and gave up no hits and only one walk. Wrote Fisher:  “There aren’t enough adjectives or superlatives to describe how well he pitched at Wrigley Field on Friday.”  Amen, brother. And I repeat, “I can’t believe this guy is on our side.”

Because Skenes is a starting pitcher, we only get to see him once every five or six days.  But Oneil Cruz, as the starting shortstop, we get to see him just about every game.  And right before our eyes, we are seeing Cruz getting better and better as the season moves on.

Against the Giants on Tuesday night, Cruz had three hits, all of which registered over 116 mph. It was the first time this has been accomplished in the Statcast era. His single in the first inning registered at 120.4 miles per hour, which ranked it as the hardest hit ball this year in Major League Baseball. But in the ninth inning, he broke his own record, set eight innings earlier, by blistering a 121.5 mile per hour double down the right field line that tied the game at six. 

Nick Gonzalez got the game-winning, walk-off single that scored the winning run for the Pirates in the 10th inning. But it was the ninth-inning Cruz double that tied the game, and that hit was notable -- not just because it registered 121.5 mph off the bat, but because it came with two outs in the ninth. If Cruz is retired in that at-bat, the Giants win the game and the sport's scribes would have been discussing something else entirely. 

Like, how Cruz’s failure to catch a pop up in shallow left field gave the Giants two gift runs in the first inning. Or how and why manager Derek Shelton let Martín Pérez go out for the fifth inning when his recent history showed that the lefty starts getting hit hard when his pitch count gets over 70 (it was at 80 to start the fifth). But Cruz got that clutch hit to tie it, and Pirates fans got to enjoy for at least 24 hours the incredible comeback that was Tuesday night’s game. Down by four in the ninth and facing the Giants' closer, Camilo Doval, who had been a perfect 8-for-8 this year in save opportunities, the Pirates rallied to tie the game.

Overcoming a four-run deficit in the ninth is something that the Pirates had not done since 2008. To say this victory looks different is an understatement. 

But, yes, this victory does look different. 

And having a shortstop that hits 121 mph rockets, that looks different.

And having the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball suit up for the Pirates and live up to the lofty expectations, that is definitely different.

And while the won loss record at 23-26 may feel like vintage Pirates, that record feels very deceiving.  The Pirates seem to be getting better.  And the fact that they seem to be getting better in midseason is, in and of itself, very different for Pirates fans, who are more accustomed to seeing the Pirates' annual summer descent to last place rather than what looks to be the potential beginning of a summer ascent to hopefully a playoff position.