This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: May 31st, Joe Orsulak, Kenny Lofton and a Comeback Win

Just two former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date and no major transactions, so it is a light day for Pirates history. We have one game recap of note at the bottom, with a link to a full article.

Kenny Lofton, center fielder for the 2003 Pirates. He was drafted by the Houston Astros in 1988, taken in the 17th round out of the University of Arizona. He was mostly a basketball player in college, but his speed and athleticism helped him get drafted in baseball. Despite being a bit raw, it didn’t take him long to make the majors. Lofton batted .214 in 1988, with 23 runs, eight extra-base hits, 14 RBIs, 26 steals and a .559 OPS in 48 games of short-season ball with Auburn of the New York-Penn League. He played 56 games in 1989, splitting the year between Auburn and Asheville of the Low-A South Atlantic League. He hit .292 that year, with 35 runs, seven extra-base hits, 17 RBIs, 40 stolen bases and a .716 OPS, with better results at the higher level. He moved up to Osceola of the High-A Florida State League in 1990, where he batted .331 in 124 games, with 98 runs, 22 extra-base hits, 35 RBIs, 62 steals and 61 walks and an .802 OPS. He skipped to Triple-A in 1991, then batted .308 over 130 games with Tuscon of the Pacific Coast League, finishing with 93 runs, 19 doubles, 17 triples, 50 RBIs, 40 steals (in 63 attempts), 52 walks and a .784 OPS. Lofton made it to the majors by the end of 1991, where he hit .203/.253/.216 in 20 games for the Astros. He was then was dealt in a one-sided trade to the Cleveland Indians that December, with catcher Ed Taubensee being the main return for the Astros in the four-player deal.

Lofton emerged as a star right away in Cleveland, leading the league in stolen bases five straight years, while batting over .300 each season from 1993 until 1997. He made the All-Star team six straight years (1994-99), and won four straight Gold Glove Awards (1993-96). Lofton was a run scoring machine during his early years with the Cleveland Indians, averaging 106 runs scored per season during his nine full years with the team. Throughout his career, he was a constant in the post-season, reaching the playoffs in 11 of his 16 full seasons in the majors. Another constant in his career was the changing of teams. He played ten seasons in Cleveland, but even that was over three different stints. He also played part or all of one season with ten other teams, among them being the 2003 Pirates.

Lofton finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 1992. He had a .285 average that year, with 96 runs, 28 extra-base hits, 42 RBIs, 66 steals, 68 walks and a .726 OPS in 148 games. The next year he received mild MVP support (15th place finish) after winning his first Gold Glove, while batting .325 in 148 games, with 116 runs, 28 doubles, eight triples, 42 RBIs, 81 walks, 70 steals and an .815 OPS. He pulled off an impressive feat in 1994 by scoring 105 runs and stealing 60 bases in 112 games during the strike-shortened season. He showed impressive power for a lead-off hitter that year, by finishing the partial season with 32 doubles, nine triples and 12 homers. He also put up a .349 batting average, which (along with his defense) helped him to a fourth place finish in the MVP voting, his first All-Star game and second Gold Glove. His .948 OPS that season was a career high, and more than 100 points higher than his second best season. The 1995 season was also shortened slightly due to the strike, but Lofton had another strong season. He hit .310 in 118 games, with 93 runs, 22 doubles, a league leading 13 triples, 53 RBIs, 54 steals and an .815 OPS. He made his second All-Star appearance and won his third straight Gold Glove. The 1996 season saw him set career highs with 132 runs scored, 210 hits, 35 doubles and 75 steals, leading to his fifth straight AL stolen base crown. He batted .317 that year, with 53 extra-base hits and 57 RBIs, while also receiving mild MVP support, with an 11th place finish. He picked up his fourth Gold Glove and third All-Star selection.

With one year remaining before free agency, Lofton was traded to the Atlanta Braves in the 1996-97 off-season. He put up a .333 average during his only season in Atlanta, with 90 runs, 31 extra-base hits, 48 RBIs, 64 walks and an .837 OPS in 122 games. He saw his stolen base numbers drop to just 27 for the season, while leading the league with 20 caught stealing. Lofton re-signed with the Indians in 1998 as a free agent, then helped them to the World Series by hitting .282 in 154 games, with 101 runs, 31 doubles, 12 homers, 64 RBIs, 54 steals, a .785 OPS and a career high 87 walks. He batted .301 over 120 games in 1999, with 110 runs scored, 41 extra-base hits, 39 RBIs, 79 walks, 25 steals and an .838 OPS. That ended up being the final of six straight All-Star appearance during his career. He hit .278 over 137 games in 2000, with 107 runs scored, 43 extra-base hits, 79 walks, 30 steals and a .791 OPS. He set career highs that year with 15 homers and 73 RBIs. During his final full season in Cleveland, Lofton batted .261 over 133 games, with 91 runs, 21 doubles, 14 homers, 66 RBIs and 16 steals. His .721 OPS was the lowest season total of his career.

Lofton signed with the Chicago White Sox as a free agent in 2002, then was traded mid-season to the San Francisco Giants. He hit .261 between both stops that year, with 98 runs, 30 doubles, nine triples, 11 homers, 51 RBIs, 72 walks, 29 stolen bases and a .763 OPS in 139 games. Lofton became a free agent again, then went all winter without signing a deal, finally settling for the Pirates at a discounted rate in March of 2003. He hit .277 over 84 games for the Pirates, with 58 runs, 32 extra-base hits, 26 RBIs, 18 stolen bases and a .770 OPS. In late July of 2003, he was included in the disastrous Aramis Ramirez deal to the Chicago Cubs, going there in exchange for Bobby Hill, Jose Hernandez and Matt Brubaker. Lofton hit .327/.381/.471 in 56 games for the Cubs, with 39 runs scored, 20 extra-base hits, 20 RBIs and 12 steals. He spent 2004 with the New York Yankees, where he batted .275 in 83 games, with 51 runs, 20 extra-base hits, 18 RBIs, seven steals and a .741 OPS. He rebounded with a .335 average for the 2005 Philadelphia Phillies, finishing the year with 67 runs, 22 extra-base hits, 36 RBIs, 22 steals and an .811 OPS in 110 games. The 2006 season saw him bat .301 in 129 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers, with 79 runs, 30 extra-base hits, 41 RBIs, 32 steals and a .764 OPS. His final season in the majors was split between the Texas Rangers and Indians. He batted .296 in 136 games between both stops, with 86 runs, 38 extra-base hits, 38 RBIs, 23 steals and a .781 OPS.

Lofton finished his 17-year career with a .299 average, 1,528 runs, 2,428 hits, 383 doubles, 116 triples, 130 homers, 781 RBIs, 622 stolen bases and 945 walks in 2,103 games. He ranks 15th all-time in stolen bases. He played 95 postseason games during his career, stealing 34 bases, while scoring 65 runs. He should have received more Hall of Fame consideration, but he failed to reach the 5% of the votes necessary to stay on the ballot during his first year of eligibility. That’s despite 68.4 WAR during his career, which ranks him 118th all-time, tied with no doubt Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk, and DH Edgar Martinez, who finally made it after ten years on the ballot. Lofton’s career 15.5 dWAR ranks just outside the top 100 for all position players. He led American League center fielders in assists four times, and all AL outfielders in assists twice.

Joe Orsulak, outfielder for the Pirates from 1983 until 1986. He was drafted by the Pirates out of Parsippany Hills HS in the sixth round of the 1980 draft. Orsulak began his pro career the next year with Greenwood of the Class-A South Atlantic League. As a 19-year-old, he hit .315 in 118 games, with 80 runs scored, 32 extra-base hits, 70 RBIs, 18 steals and a .780 OPS. Moving up to Alexandria of the Advanced-A Carolina League the next year, Orsulak hit .289 in 129 games, with 92 runs, 18 doubles, 14 homers, 65 RBIs, 28 stolen bases and .795 OPS. He jumped to Triple-A with Hawaii of the Pacific Coast League for the 1983 season, and continued the strong play by hitting .286 in 139 games, with 87 runs, ten homers, 58 RBIs, 38 stolen bases and a .760 OPS. He actually had more triples (13) than doubles (12) that season. The Pirates called him up in September of 1983, and he went 2-for-11 at the plate in seven games. He began 1984 back in Hawaii, but he was recalled after just a week when Brian Harper was placed on the disabled list. The Pirates had a lot of injury problems early in the year, and Orsulak bounced between Triple-A and the majors three times during the first two months. After being sent down in early June, he didn’t return until September when the rosters expanded. He finished the year with a .254/.271/.328 slash line in 73 plate appearances over 32 games for the Pirates. He had a .284 average in 98 games for Hawaii that year, with 51 runs, 19 doubles, 12 triples, 53 RBIs and a .752 OPS.

Orsulak was with the Pirates for the entire 1985 season, playing 72 games in center field, 41 in left and 16 in right field. He mostly batted lead-off, hitting .300 on the season, with 54 runs, 20 extra-base hits, 21 RBIs, 24 steals and a .707 OPS in 121 games. He had a huge home/road split, batting .370 at Three Rivers Stadium, and just .239 during away games. He finished sixth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. He played 138 games in 1986, seeing the majority of his playing time as a right fielder. He hit .249 that year, with 60 runs scored, 27 extra-base hits, 19 RBIs and a .641 OPS. He stole 24 bases for the second straight year, while finishing with 11 caught stealing in both seasons. Orsulak didn’t hit his first home run until 1986, when he finished with two homers. He was back in Triple-A in 1987, playing for Vancouver of the Pacific Coast League. He had a rough season, twice missing time with foot injuries, which led him to play just 39 games all year. He batted .231/.319/.308 in 165 plate appearances. He was traded to the Orioles in December of 1987 for Terry Crowley Jr and Rico Rossy. While neither of those players made it to the majors with the Pirates, Orsulak went on to play another ten seasons in the majors, getting into a total of 1,196 games after leaving Pittsburgh. He mostly played right field during that time, but also saw decent time in left field. He played a total of 215 games in center field during his career, though only 81 of those games came after leaving the Pirates. Despite stealing 48 bases during his last two seasons in Pittsburgh, he never had more than nine steals in a season after being traded.

Orsulak hit .288 for the 1988 Orioles, with 48 runs, 21 doubles, eight homers, 27 RBIs and a .753 OPS in 125 games. His 1989 season was basically a repeat of the previous year. He batted .285 in 123 games, with 59 runs, 22 doubles, seven homers and a .771 OPS. However, he went from batting first or ninth most of the time, to batting in the middle of the order, which led to him driving in 55 runs. That was more than double his previous career high up to that point. Baltimore was consistent with his playing time during his first three seasons. He hit .269 over 124 games in 1990, with 49 runs, 14 doubles and career highs of 11 homers and 57 RBIs. His .740 OPS was his lowest during his first three seasons in Baltimore, but it was also the highest during his final eight seasons in the majors. His hit totals during those three seasons were 109, 111 and 111. He saw more playing time in 1991, but he also saw a drop in his production, posting a .679 OPS. Orsulak hit .278 that year, with 57 runs, 22 doubles, five homers and 43 RBIs in a career high 143 games.  He played 117 games in 1992, when he posted a .289 average, with 45 runs, 18 doubles, four homers, 39 RBIs and a .723 OPS. He became a free agent after the season, then signed with the New York Mets, where he spent the next three seasons.

Orsulak saw regular playing time during his first season in New York, hitting .284 in 134 games, with 59 runs, 15 doubles, eight homers, 35 RBIs and a .730 OPS. He dropped down to a .651 OPS over 96 games during the strike-shortened 1994 season. He batted .260 that year, with 39 runs, eight homers and 42 RBIs. He had just three doubles and no triples that season. He hit .283 over 108 games in 1995, with 41 runs, 19 doubles, one homer, 37 RBIs and one stolen base. He saw fewer starts that year than in 1994, but his OPS went up 44 points. Orsulak saw frequent time off of the bench for the 1996 Florida Marlins, hitting .221/.274/.286 in 237 plate appearances over 120 games. He had 23 runs, nine extra-base hits and 19 RBIs. He finished his big league career with the 1997 Montreal Expos, batting .227/.310/.340 in 170 plate appearances over 106 games. He had a .664 OPS in 302 opportunities as a pinch-hitter during his career. Orsulak was a .273 career hitter in 14 big league seasons, with 559 runs, 186 doubles, 37 triples, 57 homers, 405 RBIs and 93 stolen bases. He hit .272 for the Pirates, with 51 steals in 298 games. He put up 8.0 WAR in his five years in Baltimore, which is higher than his career total of 5.4 WAR in 14 seasons. His defense was considered to be below average for most of his career.

The Game

On this date in 1905, the Pirates pulled off a comeback victory down 9-6 in the bottom of the ninth, to win 10-9 on an RBI single by Hall of Famer Fred Clarke. The game recap here has a great note about the first home run of the season by the Pirates, as well as a decision that didn’t make any sense when awarding both the win and save to the two Pirates pitchers.