The (Friday) Windup, Stewart hops aboard the Cole Train edition

Clint Hurdle isn’t a big believer in the virtues of pitchers having a personal catcher, but obviously it’s no coincidence that since Chris Stewart came off the DL in mid-April, he has been paired with Gerrit Cole five times in his seven starts, including tonight:

  • Harrison, 3b
  • Walker, 2b
  • McCutchen, cf
  • Marte, lf
  • Kang, ss
  • Alvarez, 1b
  • Polanco, rf
  • Stewart, c
  • Cole, p

This will be Cole’s 25th start while Stewart has been on the Bucs’ active roster, and will be his 15th with Stew behind the plate. ERA for the first 14: 2.94. … 

The Mets are last in the Majors in road scoring (63 runs in 19 away games), and with Cole, A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano lined up to face them at PNC Park, this feels like an early “tipping point” for the Bucs’ 2015 hopes. … 

That’ll be quite a Superhero duel Saturday, A.J. [Batman] Burnett against Matt [The Dark Knight] Harvey. Who is the real deal? To find out, release Robin on the field, and see who he runs to.  … 

Something tells me, any day now, the Zoltan will be back. … 

The (Tuesday) Windup, Kang mea culpa edition

A couple of weeks ago, when Jung Ho Kang got a couple of starts while Jordy Mercer recovered from that pitch to his chest, I was asked about his chances to become the everyday shortstop.

I essentially put it at zero.

Both I and Pirates brass that felt he had to be brought along slowly — remember, they projected him to be a regular next season — were wrong. Kang’s durability was the last thing Clint Hurdle wanted to check out, but apparently he’s durable enough to make four straight starts — around one off day — at short. … 

Tonight’s Interleague lineup v the Twins:

  • Polanco RF
  • Walker 2B
  • McCutchen CF
  • Marte LF
  • Kang SS
  • Alvarez 1B
  • Harrison 3B
  • Cervelli C
  • Liriano 1

This could still be only a phase. Hurdle wants to ride the hot bat. But he also has the guy Mercer) who this past offseason was named MLB’s sixth best shortstop by the MLB Network. … 

This is a logjam that may only be broken by an eventual trade. But I still expect Mercer back in the Bucs’ lineup soon. If for no better reason — you get a better return dealing someone out of your lineup than off your bench. … 

The Bucs have lost six of Francisco Liriano’s first seven starts, and the dog-eared no-run-support angle doesn’t work so well when noting the losses have included those by the scores of 9-8 and 8-5 — as well as by 1-0 and 2-1.

The last thing the Pirates need is for Liriano to turn into one of those pitchers who always throw just well enough to lose. … 

The Astros seem to be playing a different game than anybody else. They’re last in the Majors with a .226 team average and their on-base percentage (.301) is way lower than that of the team with the MLB’s worst record [Oakland] — yet Houston has the AL’s best record. Being No. 1 in homers helps. … 

I don’t profess to know how the Marlins’ front office is run, but if its operation is comparable to that of other teams, the most fascinating aspect of Dan Jennings’ move from GM to manager is this: How would you like to find yourself playing for the man who under his previous hat focused on your negatives when negotiating contracts? …

The (Saturday) Winudup, Morton ETA edition

Pirates lineup today:

  • Harrison 3B
  • Walker 2B
  • McCutchen CF
  • Marte LF
  • Kang SS
  • Hart 1B
  • Rodriguez RF
  • Stewart C
  • Cole P

Figured we wouldn’t see Gregory Polanco’s name in the lineup today — and nothing to do with his unfortunate pratfall at the end of Friday’s game. With lefty Jon Lester on the hill for the Cubs, this was gonna be Sean Rodriguez’s day in right field all along. …

Actually, probably a bad day for Polanco to take a seat. He’d love for a quick chance to make amends. …

Corey Hart, getting the start at first base, has two homers off Lester, and Andrew McCutchen has one. Otherwise, the Bucs don’t have much history with the former lifelong American Leaguer. … 

Not yet: Charlie Morton threw a smooth bullpen session, then was told to go make one more rehab start for Indianapolis. Then he’ll be plugged back into the Bucs rotation, most likely on May 25, for the opener of a three-game series with the Marlins in NC Park. … 

Bill Madlock, who won two NL batting titles with the Cubs (1975-76) then two more with the Bucs (1981, 1983) will instead be hitting notes today as he does the “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” honors during the seventh-inning stretch. … 

High- or low-scoring, 11 of the Bucs’ 19 losses have been by one or two runs. That’s gonna hurt when you look back at some point. … 

Rather than have “Kids run the bases,” as elsewhere following day games, the Phillies on Thursday invited those “55 and over to stroll the bases” following the game with the Bucs. So they did, long lines of seniors just shuffling around the basepaths. Funniest ballpark scene in a long time — in an endearing sense. …

The (Tuesday) Rewind, “Roasting” A.J. Edition

As A.J. Burnett went to work last night against the Phillies, the guys in the Philadelphia radio booth were making fun of him. Rather, they were making fun of his 2014 season.

Guy A: “A.J. led the National League in walks, in losses, in runs allowed, in earned run allowed.”

Guy B: “Other than that, he threw the ball very well.”

Guys A & B: “Ha, ha, ha, ha.” … 

Burnett of course dealt with a sports hernia most of his lone season with the Phillies, and is healthy now. But that isn’t the only thing to which he attributed the difference in himself:

“I know what these guys bring out in me, there’s something about the Black & Gold. It’s my last year, so I’m just leaving it all on the line. I’m not worrying about a lot, just enjoying it.” .. 

So A.J. Burnett and one of the guys now analyzing his pitching, Bob Walk, are the only pitchers in Pirates history to start a season with seven straight without allowing more than two runs. When Walk did it in 1988, he gave up 10 earned in his ensuing two starts covering nine innings. … 

Jared Hughes is on pace for 94 appearances, but the Major League record for most games in a season is not only safe, but probably safer than even Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak.

Mike Marshall made 106 appearances for the 1974 Dodgers. Not a misprint. Marshall that season also pitched 208 1/3 innings, all in relief. Also not a misprint. … 

Still, both Tony Watson’s (18) and Hughes’ (19) workloads are enough to unease Clint Hurdle whose “magic number to stay under is 75.” …

Off the top of his head, Hurdle could cite letting only one pitcher go over that number in his  first four seasons with the Bucs, recalling Jose Veras’ 79 games in 2011. But Watson was called on 78 times last season. … 

It’s not all about Starling: His move into the cleanup spot coincides with Andrew McCutchen’s awakening, so his protection of the No. 3 hitter has also been key. In the eight games thus far that they have hit back-to-back, Marte and Cutch are a combined 20-for-62 (.322), with ample power and run production. … 

The (Tuesday) Windup, Where’s Jung Ho Edition

The Bucs don’t have a Waldo, but they do have a new daily puzzle: “Where’s Jung Ho?”

Tonight, he’s at shortstop. He’s starting a fourth consecutive game for the first time – giving Jordy Mercer a day off while clearing room for Josh Harrison at third.

Kang has warmed to Major League pitching quicker than anticipated, and this is becoming a big dilemma for Clint Hurdle, tugged in different directions by two things he swears by: Loyalty to his players, and a commitment to field the best lineup possible every day.

Harrison and Mercer figure in the first, and of late Kang definitely plays in the other.

It is almost with a pained expression that Hurdle says, “We continue to look for opportunities to get the best lineup out there that we can today. It’s the way I’ve always felt — even when it may not lineup with other people’s feelings.”

The quandary is not going away any day soon. What if Harrison resumes hitting and playing in the style that earned him a five-year contract after Opening Day? That won’t make the problem go away — just make the daily decisions tougher … 

Tonight’s lineup:

  • Polanco RF
  • Walker 2B
  • McCutchen CF
  • Marte LF
  • Alvarez 3B
  • Kang SS
  • Harrison 3B
  •  Cervelli C
  • Burnett P

Mark Melancon has twice done within the span of three weeks something he had never done before: Earn saves in three consecutive games. … 

Only one player has more than Starling Marte’s 22 RBIs since April 17: Bryce Harper, the guy everyone has been going nuts over lately. … 

Sean O’Sullivan is coming off the Phillies’ DL for Tuesday’s start after making 30 and 57 pitches in a couple of sim games, which is interestingly contrary to the Pirates’ insistence for rehabbing pitchers to stretch out to at least 85 pitches before returning to the wars. … 

The (Sunday) Windup, Mamma Mia edition

The mother of all Pirates lineups:

  • Harrison 2B
  • Kang 3B
  • McCutchen CF
  • Marte LF
  • Hart 1B
  • Mercer SS
  • Rodriguez RF
  • Cervelli C
  • Locke P

Clint Hurdle, on Starling Marte being back in there after leaving last night’s game with “extreme dizziness:” “Couldn’t put a finger on (what caused) it. We filled him up with straw and are sending him back out there. We’re off to see the Wizard.” … 

Dugout conversation in the sixth inning Saturday night:

Co-bench coach Dave Jauss: “Who should I get ready to (pinch) hit for (pitcher Rob) Scahill?”

Hurdle: “You need to tell Scahill to be ready to hit after Mercer hits this grand slam.”

So Hurdle was the only one in the park mad about Jordy Mercer’s bases-loaded double high off the center field wall.

“I had to be the only one ticked off that it didn’t go out,” Hurdle said. “Kind of crazy, huh” … 

Let’s get physical? It’s happening around the second base bag, due to Replay Review, which doesn’t allow for “phantom” plays. “Evidence” is big in reviews, and the harder the better.

Hurdle:

“The game’s gotten physical around the bag. You got to stay with tags. In the past, you’d get a slap tag in and get out of town. Now, they hold it while the guy is trying to hold onto the base. You gotta slide better. You’ve got to stick your nose in there and stay with the play — on both sides of it.”…

The (Saturday) Windup, Quick Study edition

The Pirates have three .300 hitters as of Saturday afternoon. One is in Indianapolis (Tony Sanchez), another is a jack-of-all-positions reserve guy (Sean Rodriguez) — then there’s Jung Ho Kang.

Easy to forget Kang was an early-Spring Training casualty. Three weeks into the Grapefruit League, he was 3-for-27 (.111) with 11 strikeouts. From that point on, he hit .333 in exhibitions, and is at .300 in-season.
Kang got hot in Spring Training after he stopped talking to reporters. But he’s been back to his affable self since the season began. In fact, he gave me a “What’s up, Tom?” in perfect English just the other day.
So it’s not like the media was a bad influence and, once free from that, Jung Ho started hitting. So how come he caught on so quick?
“He pays attention, and is very confident in his own skill set,” Clint Hurdle says. “He also is realistic; he knows challenges he is facing. He knows he has to practice at a faster pace and hit balls pitched faster and with more spin. The guy just has a very big desire, and a high level of commitment to not let anything get in his way.” … 
So there he is, in tonight’s lineup against he Cards:
  • Polanco RF
  • Walker 2B
  • McCutchen CF
  • Marte LF
  • Alvarez 1B
  • Kang 3B
  • Cervelli C
  • Mercer SS
  • Worley P
Expect Kang to stay in there tomorrow, too, but at short, with Josh Harrison back at third. …
In addition to his 0-for-20-breaking single, Harrison also lined into a couple of hard outs Friday night. To some players mired in slumps, making hard outs just makes matters worse.
“I’ve seen guys come back to the bench with boo-hoo lips,” said Hurdle.”It can also work the other way, where they think, ‘Okay, that’s what I’m looking for. If I can do that seven of 10 times, I’m heading in the right direction.”
Hurdle sees Josh as an Example B type.
“He believes, ‘Today’s the day I get rolling, and be the kind of player I was last year.’” … 

The (Friday) Windup, Hot Hand Kang edition

Pirates’ lineup for tonight’s opener of the Cards series:

  • Polanco RF
  • Walker 2B
  • McCutchen CF
  • Marte LF
  • Alvarez 1B
  • Harrison 3B
  • Cervelli C
  • Mercer SS
  • Liriano P

One thing that might jump out is the absence of Jung Ho Kang, considerably hotter [7-for-17] than the guys who play his positions, Josh Harrison [1-for-30] and Jordy Mercer [4-for-22].

Manager Clint Hurdle sounded conflicted in his rationale. Hurdle is extremely loyal, but is also pragmatic.

On Kang: “I like to play the hot hand.”

On Harrison/Mercer: “I also want to make sure we’re tied to guys we’ve been tied to.” …

More Hurdle on Kang: “He’s in a very good place. We’ll get him back in the lineup. We’re trying to grow him, to play more and handle more. Two weeks ago, he was the stress ball. ‘Why isn’t he in Triple-A?’ Now he’s not playing enough. We’re trying to figure it out. We’ll get back to you.” … 

A.J. Burnett ended a nine-pitch at-bat Thursday night by sending a drive to the warning track in left center., falling a few feet shy of a  major farewell-season wish: His first home run since July 24, 2005, when he went yard on Kevin Correia, then with the Giants.

Burnett felt he was of the wrong age. “Ten years ago, maybe that goes out.”

Hurdle thinks he was just in the wrong place: “He hit a home run in any other park but this one.” … 

I asked Hurdle about the disparity between his Bucs’ record against the Cardinals here (15-7 since early April 2013) and there (15-3). Seemed like a legit question, but all Hurdle would say is, “I’ve got nothing there. I just killed your question.” … 

RIP, Question.

The (Friday) Windup, Message in a bottle (of Busch) edition

To Clint Hurdle — and to his players, who take after him  — no one game is bigger than the other 161. Especially not on May Day.

But make no mistake — if the Pirates’ intent to unseat St. Louis as NL Central Division  champs is to be taken seriously, they need to show up against the Cardinals this weekend.

It doesn’t matter whether or not they agree with perceiving this as a “message” series — another concept the Bucs reject. Whatever you want to call it, that is what it is. … 

Hurdle on the Cards’ fast start: “They’ve pitched their backsides off, starting and relief.” …

Only 10 Pirates remain from the squad that faced the Cardinals in the 2013 NL Division Series. That’s a 60 percent turnover in 17 months. … 

The incumbents: McCutchen, Alvarez, Harrison, Marte, Walker, Mercer, Cole, Melancon, Watson and tonight’s pitcher, Burnett. … 

The threat of fines apparently was enough for players to “step on it.” Actual fines not needed: Original plans were for MLB to start assessing fines today for violations of new pace-of-play rules, but the Bucs have not received official alerts of that, confirming MLBPA head Tony Clark’s view that a fine schedule may be waved off as unnecessary.

Why? Through April, game times are down an average of nearly nine minutes off the ’14 pace. Scared Fast?

“The initiatives have made a tangible difference,” Hurdle said. “Players are engaged in this; you’ll see them catching themselves stepping out, and they’ll step right back in.” … 

The (Tuesday) Rewind, Mysterious Gesture edition

If you thought the Pirates’ Z-for-Zoltan “rallying cry” was odd, consider the new way they dot big hits, the … what is that thing anyway?

“It’s whatever you want it to be. Call it whatever you like,” said a coyly smiling Josh Harrison, credited with first using the gesture teammates have begin to mimic.

How should I describe it? You fully extend one arm, and keep the other bent over it, as if … firing an arrow? Surfing? Trying to hypnotize someone? You’re Moe, looking for Curly’s chin?

“The Zoltan is gone. That’s old. It was time to try something new,” said Andrew McCutchen, who also could not, or would not, define the motion.

By any name, it is a sign of solidarity. Maybe those things work best if you’re the only ones who know what it means. 

Missed in the wake of Francisco Liriano’s Sunday gem in Phoenix: It was his first win in the month of April for the Pirates; in fact, his first in the month since 2011, with the Twins. … 

Is there any good news in Adam Wainwright’s season-ending injury? Actually, yes — it is to his Achilles and not to his right arm, which thus gets an extended rest after making the second-most pitches [10,222] since the start of the 2012 season among NL hurlers. Only Cole Hamels has made more. … 

You have to feel for Andrew Lambo, who has hit into a lot of hard outs. At the end of the day, though, he is still 1-for-22, and the Bucs still need more than an .045-hitting fourth outfielder. …

On a possibly related note, switch-hitting Steve Lombardozzi is batting .390, with an on-base percentage of .455, in Indianapolis, where the infield veteran has spent more time getting comfortable in the outfield. … 

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