The squirrel and the blowout

PNC Park squirrel

This little fellow (or gal, who knew?) cops a proud squat on the PNC Park left field grass before leading three groundsmen on a warning track chase in the bottom of the second—and the Pirates into blowing out the Cubs Monday night.

Believe in the power of the Rally Squirrel? After Monday night’s doings, the Pirates may want to think about it. Hard.

The bushy-tailed rodent showed up to run around the PNC Park outfield and warning track as the bottom of the second got under way. After he disappeared at last, the Pirates dropped three in that inning, four the next, five in the seventh, and a 12-1 smothering of the further-sputtering Cubs.

For too long the Pirates have lived in the place where the nuts hunt the squirrels. It was lovely to see them upend things for an evening.

With Daniel Vogelbach on first, nobody out, and a 1-1 count on Michael Chavis against rookie Cubs starter Caleb Kilian, the bushy-tailed rodent scampered out onto the field from somewhere in the region of PNC Park’s third base seats.

The creature galloped toward the left field corner in a jagged route with three grounds crew in hot pursuit. One of the groundsmen carried a large washing bucket. A second carried a net whose weave was big enough to allow a human suspect to escape the moment it might be dropped over him.

The squirrel himself (or herself, who knew?) wasn’t exactly a model of precision running at first. Certainly not as swift or sure as the one who ran down the third base line as if stealing home in Coors Field eight years ago.

“[W]hat was his sprint speed?” Pirates manager Derek Shelton asked of the PNC squirrel  after the game. “We had to get that in the Statcast era. Definitely one of the worst rundowns I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a couple bad ones.”

After the three groundsmen chased him toward the deepest left field corner, the squirrel ran back and forth from the foul line to the mid-left field piece of the warning track, finally making for a passway under the center field seats’ edge and into the Cubs bullpen with the bucket man in hotter pursuit.

The Pirates in their dugout watched with bemusement. The Cubs’ relief corps looked uncertain as to whether the game was going nuts. Little did they know.

Chavis walked on five pitches. Touted Pirates rookie Oneil Cruz, all 6’7″ worth of him,  reached on a fielding error to load the pads. Fellow rookie Bligh Madris ripped a two-run single to right and stole second before Tyler Heineman struck out, but Hoy Park sent Madris home on a long sacrifice fly.

One inning later, the Pirates struck a lot more swiftly, loading the pads on Kilian with nobody out (back to back walks and an infield hit) before Kilian wild-pitched Bryan Reynolds home. Chavis waited out a four-pitch walk before Cruz sent a three-run double to the absolute rear of center field.

That ended Kilian’s evening but not the Cubs’ miseries. After the Cubs managed to sneak a run home in the top of the seventh on back-to-back singles, then an RBI single which followed back-to-back strikeouts, the Pirates got squirrely again in the bottom of the frame: a two-run double (Vogelbach), an RBI single (Cruz), an RBI double (Heineman), and a sacrifice fly (Park again).

Madris swung his way into the Pirates’ history books with his three-hit evening, the first Pirate to do it in his Show debut since Jason Kendall did it in 1996. He also became the first Pirate since Andrew McCutchen (2009) to debut with a hit, a run batted in, and a stolen base in a single game.

“That was a lot of fun and everything I could ask for,” he grinned postgame. “With [batting practice] getting canceled today, when I stepped in the box, it was really my first at-bat in the big leagues. The game threw a little bit of everything at me today. Thankful for the opportunity. It was awesome.”

Cruz, already the tallest shortstop in major league history, and ranked the Pirates’ number three prospect, got called up from Indianapolis (AAA) with Madris Monday. Madris has nothing but good to say about his Indy teammate, who poked his nose out of his hole at last season’s end and hit a home run almost from his knees.

“The guy’s unreal,” Captain Bligh told reporters. “He has tools that come around once every 100 years. He can hit pitches out of the ballpark that some guys are lucky to get out of the infield. Being here now is going to propel him to greater things.”

“What I can promise you,” said Cruz before Monday night’s game, “is you’re going to see it a lot more frequently. You’re going to see a lot of balls hit hard and a lot of balls traveling very far.” He kept the promise, too—his double was estimated to fly 112.9 mph off his bat. But he also has a howitzer of a throwing arm, throwing one grounder over to first at 96.7 mph.

Players like these are what the Pirates need to continue wrenching themselves out of tank mode and navigate the rash of injuries and illness that’s struck them of late. Not just because of their skills and prospective production, but because of . . . shall we say . . . no, let Chavis say it, as he did before Monday’s game.

“The quality guys that we’ve called up has been pretty significant,” the first baseman told reporters. “We’re not having those, um . . . we don’t have those assholes. There’s no better way to say it. You don’t have a guy with an attitude problem. Guys come up, ask questions, try to be good, stay out of the way of the older guys and are just happy to be here. I can’t say enough about all of them.”

For a team that’s just followed a ferocious nine-game losing streak by winning their next three of five including Monday’s massacre, that’s as large a light as you can ask to see facing the still-elongated end of their tunnel.

Just in case, though, the Pirates might not want to let the squirrel escape too soon. If at all.