In his first six appearances this season, Pirate closer Stan Belinda produced four saves in four tries, a 1.42 ERA and six strikeouts in 6? innings. In his seventh game, on April 21 at Three Rivers Stadium, Belinda hung a slider to the Reds' Kevin Mitchell, who hit a three-run homer to wipe out a 5-4 deficit in a game that Cincinnati eventually won 8-7 in 12 innings.
"The place erupted in boos," Belinda says. "The fans were letting me know that I have to be perfect for them. They were telling me that they will never forget."
Belinda, you recall, gave up the two-out, two-run single to unknown Francisco Cabrera in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the National League Championship Series last October. The hit put the Atlanta Braves in the World Series, denied Pittsburgh a National League pennant for the third straight year, and put Belinda in the company of the game's most infamous pitchers. "It's not fair to Stan," one Pirate says, "but in this town people look at him like he's Ralph Branca."
It was a long, lonely winter for Belinda, who, until that one pitch, had had his best season in the majors (6-4, 3.15 ERA, 18 saves). He received hate mail. People who saw him on the street would sometimes yell Cabrera's name at him. "That loss was devastating to the fans and the team," says Belinda. "But I couldn't let it bother me because the team is relying on me."
The decisive 2-1 pitch to Cabrera—a fastball hitter—was a fastball. At the time Belinda didn't trust his slider or his forkball enough to throw either pitch when he was behind in the count, with the bases loaded and with his team ahead by only one run. He thought about that all winter. "I was just throwing fastballs, and I got burned," he says. "Now I know I've got to concentrate on throwing other pitches."
When Belinda reported to spring training, says Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller, "I saw a different guy. At times before, he'd come in a game that wasn't on the line, and he might not be serious. But he was dead serious all spring. What happened to him last October will make you grow up, or it will kill you. Stan grew up."
Belinda was booed during the player introductions on Opening Day at Three Rivers Stadium. "The mail in the off-season didn't bother me," says Belinda. "Those are usually individuals who don't know what they're talking about. But when the season-ticket holders—the people who have seen me year after year—booed, it was enough to make you pull your hair out. I like to be liked; that's human nature. But I'm not going to let a fan get under my skin."
The 26-year-old Belinda says he couldn't wait for his first save, which came on April 8 in a 5-4 win over the Padres. "It was like a piano was lifted off my back," he says. But after the homer to Mitchell, and hearing the fans boo again, he understands his burden.
"Now I realize a whole orchestra is on my back," Belinda says. "I just got rid of one instrument. There are still 40 pieces to go. I'll try to be perfect. If I'm not, I won't pout or cry. I'll just try to be perfect the next time."