To the uneducated eye, it was a meaningless inning in a string of meaningless spring training games where only managers and coaches can see the real beauty of things.
What Pittsburgh Pirates manager John Russell witnessed was his Picasso — a piece of work that is developing into a masterpiece.
It began with Lakewood Ranch graduate Lastings Milledge leading off the third inning with an infield single against the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday. He moved to second on a wild pitch, took third on a passed ball and scored on an infield ground out.
A run without the ball getting through the infield.
Russell would call this the key to his master plan. The gross national run production of the Pirates cannot equal that of teams like the New York Yankees. For Pittsburgh to be successful, stealing runs is crucial.
Milledge calls it creating havoc, and it’s part of his new makeup and approach to the game.
What the insightful saw against the Rays was a soon to be 25-year-old growing up; a person with immense individual skills willing to sacrifice them all for the good of the team.
Though homers might glamorize a player and bring in bigger dollars at contract time, what Milledge did can pay big dividends to a team like the Pirates.
Milledge’s critics might say it’s about time, but in fairness to the Palmetto native, he has become a near mythical figure around these parts, and that’s not an easy reputation for any mere mortal to carry.
We adopted him as our hero and demanded he be perfect.
We asked him to do the impossible and that can only bring failure in some people’s eyes. He heard that he didn’t hustle enough and might be on the selfish side. He doesn’t agree, but rather than argue he will show you on the field.
So far, so good.
Actions speak louder than words, but Milledge is also saying the right things and he appears genuine.
“We are a team where speed is going to be a big key, advancing on passed balls and getting guys over any way we can,” he said. “Bunting and situational hitting is going to be the kind of team we are. The thing I’ve learned here is that it’s not all about the long ball. It’s running everything out and playing hard, creating havoc.”
Russell knows this style fits Milledge perfectly, and he is not concerned about any digressions the outfielder might have had. If the Pirates offense is going to rely on small ball, Milledge is the trigger man.
“He is a great player and great players are capable of doing some of the things he showed he can do out there today. I am not worried about the past,” Russell said.
Milledge has heard the talk that this team could lose more games in one season than most do in two, but it doesn’t scare him or dampen his enthusiasm. He brings a mentality that won’t allow that to happen.
“People say we might lose a hundred games, but if we go about our business the right way and do the right things eventually we will start winning,” he said. “It’s a fun team. I look at everybody and they all play the game hard and everybody wants to get better. We can’t do the things that the Yankees and those power clubs can do, but we can play small ball, and you can win with that style.”
It’s obvious Milledge is the catalyst. Call him Captain Havoc.
People might have said that about him before, but now it’s not about creating the kind of havoc that gets you in the doghouse. Milledge and his teammates are aiming for the penthouse.
“What I did (Thursday) is what everyone can do,” Milledge said. “We always want to advance a base. If it’s a passed ball we want to pressure on the catcher, make him pick it clean and then throw a strike to second. We want to put pressure on the opposing defense.”