Hope Renewed


So, here we are. The 100th game of the season. The Pirates are tied for first place in the division. They had three players in the All-Star Game. Pedro Alvarez is back from injury and the minor leagues. Tonight’s game is getting national exposure on ESPN. ((Unless it gets rained out.)) It’s been a roller coaster of a season and there’s still a long way to go.

I don’t think anyone expected the Pirates to be at the top of the division right now. I don’t think many even expected them to be this competitive. At the beginning of the season, I didn’t expect the Pirates to be a great team. I didn’t even think they’d be good. My guess for this year was that they’d be playing roughly .500 baseball and that it would come down to the wire towards the final handful of games for which side of center they’d end on. I was merely hoping they would be better than last year, and at best they might end this long, national pastime nightmare of eighteen consecutive losing seasons.

It turns out the Pirates are definitely good enough to end the streak. And they’re possibly good enough to make the playoffs. It’s already a season to remember just for the sheer turnaround that this team has accomplished. If they also end up winning the division, it would be legendary. I’ve watched almost all the games ((Playoff hockey still takes precedence.)) and I’d say that 95% of the time the Pirates are at least competitive in a game. The other 5% are the blowouts where something just seems to be wrong with the team and they can’t turn it around, be it not getting the bounces they need or just an utter lack of batting power. It’s not fun when the Pirates have to battle back if they’re down by four or more runs. It seems pretty difficult. But the Pirates have done so on a few occasions. Which means there’s rarely a time where I’ll stop watching because the situation is hopeless.

And that was the difference this team needed: hope. Clint Hurdle came in and gave the Pirates confidence and hope. Last year, under John Russell, you could see the team giving up when they fell behind in a game. Sometimes, even if it was only by a run, the air would just go out of the sails and the game was lost before it was over. The entire team seemed anemic. When the Pirates reached the top of the division earlier this year, one of the players was interviewed after the game and got asked how this team was so different than the previous years. He replied that they used to go out hoping to win a game, and now they go out and expect to win.

Hurdle said this was his mantra earlier in the season (( Some choice quotes by Hurdle are in this game preview.  You can tell he keeps a level head when it matters, but can fire the team up when he needs to.)) and, judging by their play on the field, the entire team has bought into it. They play games expecting to win. That is a huge change in the mindset of the team, and it’s evident that Hurdle was behind it all. For the first few months of the season, Hurdle had to keep repeating that .500 was not the ultimate goal of the team. He said he wasn’t concerned about it and that he wanted to keep going. And they did.

The offense has definitely improved from last year. Despite Pedro Alvarez having a bad start and then getting lost to injury, rehab, and the minor leagues, the Pirates have rolled along, bringing up replacement players who manage to contribute to scraping out wins. Now Pedro is back, and I think the Pirates will lean on that instead of making a big trade and giving up any prospects before they’re really ready to compete in the playoffs. Likewise what was supposed to be the glaring weakness that would sink the team, pitching, ended up being much better than last season as well. Sure there’s been some blown games, both late and early, but it seems like this year all the players know they can win. They know they have the talent. They know they can succeed.

The team buying into the mindset of expecting to win brought them success on the field. This gets the fans to buy into their team. There’s an entire generation of Pittsburghers that has had no reason to support the Pirates as they’ve watched stars been sold off for useless prospects, terrible draft picks that don’t come close to panning out, and multiple failed five-year plans that lead to nowhere. The Pirates are now turning that corner. Injuries don’t stop this team. Losing streaks don’t derail the season. All-Star snubs don’t phase the leaders. This is the year the Pirates regained their confidence, their dignity, and their fans.


Hope Resilient

The Women’s Soccer semifinal between the United States and Brazil was one of the greatest sports matches I’ve seen, let alone the greatest soccer game. It was breathtaking, frustrating, and ultimately gratifying; eliciting every emotion possible over a game.

The U.S. got a goal within the first two minutes ((Granted, it was an own-goal by Brazil, but in soccer, you take whatever you can get.)) and held onto this lead for the rest of the first half, despite some really close chances by Brazil that had you on the edge of your seat. You had a good feeling about the game, America was holding its own.

Then FIFA happened. Shortly into the second half, everything seemed to go wrong. Buehler got a questionable red card and Brazil was awarded a penalty kick. Tension set in. Hope Solo made a magnificent save, but for naught as the refs struck again with another poor call, a yellow card for Solo, and a re-do of the penalty kick. Brazil’s All-Star player, Marta ((Do all their players have single-name names?)), took the PK and scored.

Ok so it was only tied and— Brazil suddenly scored again. Offside, but uncalled. So clearly the refs are one-sided and the U.S. would have to beat them and Brazil while down to only ten players. Then Brazil pulled out the flopping and diving shenanigans to run the clock down. ((This is one of the huge reasons I despise soccer. There were no signs of it for most of the game, and it wasn’t that prevalent in the previous three matches, so I was enjoying it more than the 2010 World Cup. It apparently exists in all variants of the sport, sadly. )) A player walked around after a corner kick, fell to the ground in agony, had to be stretchered off, then after twenty feet on the stretcher, hopped off and ran back into the game. Pathetic. It was almost hopeless, the clock ran out, there’s only three minutes of extra play. We had already been a player down for fifty-five minutes and no goals, what would an extra three help?

And then, when hope was at its nadir and everyone watching seemed to resign themselves to another controversy-laden loss, the latest goal in World Cup history was scored. ((It’s definitely the latest goal in the Women’s World Cup, but Wikipedia’s records page has the latest goals at the 120 and 121 minute marks. So I’ll go with overall, because that’s even better. )) Rapinoe made a high pass across the box, and then Wombach buried it. Prevailing against all the odds, down a player, and against a powerhouse in the soccer world.

While the shootout was a little bit underwhelming, it was great to see Hope Solo make a clutch save to give the U.S. a chance to win. At the end of the day, it took a total team effort to come away with a win. The amount of heart and determination displayed by the women was as close to the mentality of playoff hockey as I’ve seen in any other sport.

And the best part of all? A European-dominated crowd cheering for America. I don’t expect that to happen in today’s game against France, but it was nice to see happen.

Also, another great thing about this World Cup? No vuvuzelas.