PITTSBURGH — When a player is traded, fairly or unfairly, they end up being evaluated in comparison to the player or players they were exchanged for.
For new Pirates Michael Feliz, Colin Moran, and Joe Musgrove, the player that they’ll be compared to is Gerrit Cole. With the Astros, Cole got his season off to a spectacular start, striking out 11 over seven innings while allowing just one run on Sunday against the Texas Rangers.
For the Pirates, things weren’t looking as promising.
Musgrove had a setback in Spring Training, has yet to make his Pirates debut, and early in the day on Monday, landed on the 10-day disabled list with a right shoulder strain, meaning he won’t start his season until mid-April at the earliest.
Feliz made his Pirates debut on Friday in the season opener against Detroit and allowed four earned runs on four hits without recording an out. He pitched a scoreless seventh inning in the Pirates’ 1-0 Game 1 victory on Sunday to lower his ERA from infinity to a more-manageable 36.00.
Moran started the season with an 0-for-6 outing on Friday and went 1 for 3 on Sunday with a double, but his triple slash line over the first weekend was an ugly .111/.111/.222.
As anyone involved in the game will tell you, it’s early. Even after beating the Minnesota Twins 5-4 on Monday to improve to 4-0, the Pirates have played less than 2.5 percent of their 2018 schedule. To put that in comparable terms to an 16-game NFL season, there would still be 12:00 left in the second quarter of the season opener.
But the 2018 Pirates, maybe more than most baseball teams, desperately needed a hot start. The fan and media reaction to the offseason trades of Cole and Andrew McCutchen was so overwhelmingly negative that the average fan on the street in Pittsburgh seems to think the team will lose 100 games.
At least partially as a result of that reaction, and an organized protest for fans to sit out the home opener, just 30,186 came to PNC Park on Monday, the smallest crowd for a home opener since 1982.
In order to re-capture the enthusiasm of the fanbase, the Pirates needed to both have team success and have the players acquired in those unpopular trades endear themselves to the fanbase and show the kind of potential the Pirates saw when they made those moves.
Coming into town after a sweep of the Tigers in Detroit had the team success part nailed down. But the second part, well, that was still lacking.
Right-hander Kyle Crick, the closest-to-the-majors piece of the McCutchen trade, started the season in the minors despite an uninspiring performance from the Pirates’ other middle relievers in the spring. The three players acquired for Cole on the team had yet to prove their worth.
In the bottom of the first inning against the Twins on Monday, all that changed.
Facing Twins starter Lance Lynn for the first time in his career, Moran worked a full count. Lynn had already walked Josh Harrison, Starling Marte, and Francisco Cervelli to load the bases, so Moran had a tough decision at 3-2. A borderline pitch taken for a ball would score a run. An out would waste three free baserunners. He needed to make an early decision and make solid contact.
Lynn let loose a 95-mph four-seam fastball that was just at the top edge of the zone. Moran went looking for solid contact and came away with a moment he’ll never forget.
Moran connected with Lynn’s fastball for an exit velocity of 107.8 mph and before it landed in the crowd atop the Clemente Wall, 405 feet away from home plate, it was evident to everyone in attendance what the Pirates saw when the acquired Moran.
The report from the bat on a ball hit that hard has a different kind of sound. Seasoned reporters know to snap their head up from their story at the sound of it. Lynn knew it was gone before he ever turned around.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) April 2, 2018
Moran, understated to a fault, didn’t let loose any kind of extraneous celebration as he jogged around the bases. He left that to the crowd and the bench, as the 30,000-plus serenaded him to a curtain call and his teammates practically pushed him up the dugout stairs to awaiting fans.
“It happened really fast,” Moran said, in the understatement of the century.
The rookie third baseman, making his first start at PNC Park, in his first at-bat, had just hit a grand slam to give his team a commanding 5-0 lead. In a sport built for big moments, it’s tough to top that as a 25-year-old.
“Someone waved me over there, so I just went over there,” Moran said. “It was the first time I’ve ever experienced something like that. It was exciting. It was really special.”
If Moran didn’t quite grasp the enormity of the situation, those around him certainly did.
“You can’t help but be happy for him,” veteran shortstop Jordy Mercer said. “He just hit a grand slam in the big leagues, opening day in Pittsburgh, new team, new situation.”
“One of those special moments and you just kind of sit back and you watch somebody else do something really fun,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “I got some goosebumps for him. I don’t get them much anymore. I got goosebumps to hear our home crowd embrace him like that and ask him to come back out for a curtain call, that’s never not good. Never not good. Fun.”
It’s hard, this early in a 162-game season, to attach so much importance to one game, let alone one swing of the bat.
“It’s great any time you win four in a row,” Mercer said. “It’s a great way to start. You’ve just got to continue to build off it.”
But at least for the day, the Pirates both were winners and looked like winners, and as the 2018 squad continues to try to both reclaim the passions of the fanbase and reassert themselves as a threat in the NL Central, that’s about as big as it gets.