“Stubborn” like a bull? Well, of course

The reinvention of Pedro Alvarez, begun last October, continues, and it is pretty astounding.

Getting to five homers quicker than any Pirate since Willie Stargell in 1971, or becoming the first Pittsburgh player ever to notch a pair of two-homer games within the first eight of the season, isn’t astounding; Alvarez’s power is recognized.

But how about two strikeouts in his last 30 plate appearances — during which he has drawn six walks? Who is that guy?

Manager Clint Hurdle attributes this to Alvarez “becoming more stubborn with his approach, and being aware of where he gets pitched.”

How about his .353, 3-homer, 6-RBI Division Series against the Cardinals? That seemed to put him over the top, as far as his confidence is concerned.

“Yeah,” Hurdle said, “I do think that was a big help, to perform with that slow heartbeat under that magnifying glass. He probably had the most consistently competitive at-bats of anybody in our lineup that whole series. I do think that was a big confidence builder.”

In Thursday’s game, Alvarez batted fourth in the lineup for the first time ever against a left-hander (the Cubs’ Travis Wood) — cementing his role as the cleanup hitter Hurdle has foreseen for him for years.

Alvarez’s big blow, the three-run winner in the seventh, of course came off a different lefty, James Russell. Alvarez screwed up enough pitching moves even in 2013 to collect 13 RBIs off southpaw relievers.

Pirates lineup, Apr 9 at Cubbies

Pirates lineup v Cubs (and Jason Hammel):

  • LF: Starling Marte
  • RF: Travis Snider
  • CF: Andrew McCutchen
  • 3B: Pedro Alvarez
  • C: Russell Martin
  • 2B: Neil Walker
  • 1B: Travis Ishikawa
  • SS: Jordy Mercer
  • P : Wandy Rodriguez

The biggest early-season surprise, easily, is how Ishikawa has moved in and made himself at home. Sure, the fact the Pirates have faced nothing but right-handed pitchers accommodates him — but, make no mistake, if he hadn’t hit out of the gate, Clint Hurdle would’ve worked around him.

Ishikawa bought a major leash with his two-hit game on Opening Day. And he’s kept hitting (.294) and getting on base (.350).

This must be tough on Gaby Sanchez — even though he will get a start Thursday, when the Bucs finally get a lefty (Travis Wood).

I’ll get Gaby’s thoughts on this pre-game today.

Check out Pirates.com later to see what he has to say.

Pirates lineup at Cubs; and woe is baseball!

Pirates lineup for tonight’s game in Wrigley:

  • LF: Starling Marte
  • RF: Travis Snider
  • CF: Andrew McCutchen
  • 3B: Pedro Alvarez
  • C: Russell Martin
  • 2B: Neil Walker
  • 1B: Travis Ishikawa
  • SS: Jordy Mercer
  • P : Charlie Morton
And, why not? That lineup is 3-1 this season.
* * *
This doesn’t quite qualify as another one of those “baseball is dying” Chicken Little cries, but even someone as knowledgeable and respected as Bill Madden buys into a common misconception.
He wrote over the weekend:
“It’s an unfortunate proven fact that never was the game more popular than at the height of the steroid era in the late 1990s, when home runs were flying out of ballparks in bunches.”
Proven fact? Yes, chicks and everyone else loves the long ball, and that culture did ratchet up the popularity that sagged after the 1994-95 play stoppage. But more popular than now?
In 1998, the Summer of the Chase (Mark McGwire v Sammy Sosa) 12 of the 30 teams drew fewer than 2 million and the aggregate MLB attendance  was 70,372,221.
Last season, only eight teams were under 2 mil and had a total gate of 74,026,895.
Narrowing that focus down to one team, the Giants in ’98 were one of the sub-2 million clubs. According to the team accounting announced today, the G-Men have already sold 2.8 million tickets for this season.
And, oh, MLB set an all-time preseason attendance record, Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues combined.
Yep, really hurting.

Forever wedded to Hammerin’ Hank’s big day

This is one way to make sure you never forget your wedding anniversary: Have Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth’s career home run record on that date.

Or, one way to make sure you never forget the day Hammerin’ Hank passed The Bambino: Get married on the same date.

Either way, today floods me with memories.

Yes, I was in Atlanta to cover Aaron’s unforgettable day. Well, actually, I was in Atlanta with the Dodgers, the team I was covering for the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Same difference.

I had gotten married the previous April 8, in Los Angeles. So, one thing hasn’t changed in 41 years: I’m still out of town on my wedding anniversary, only this time in Chicago to cover the Pirates for MLB.com. As someone once said, “This is the life we’ve chosen.”

Called my wife this morning and played an old trick on Malvina, who still doesn’t know anything about baseball (hitting may be contagious, but affinity for ball apparently is not).

“Hi. Do you know what day this is?” I asked her.

She goes, “C’mon. Of course. It’s our anniversary.”

“Nope — it’s the day Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth.”

Amazing that after 41 years, it can  still make her laugh. Probably why we are still together after 41 years.

Pirates get Wainwright’s best — and still get him

It isn’t like the Pirates had never beaten Adam Wainwright before.

In 2007, they nailed him for five runs in six innings. The following year, they put five more runs on him. Then there was the 2012 game the Pirates rocked Wainwright for 11 hits and seven runs in five innings.

Every pitcher has off days, and the Bucs had caught him on a few.

But this is what made Sunday different: They beat Wainwright at his best; they found someone to go toe-to-toe with the St. Louis ace — Edinson Volquez — and deny him a win he surely felt he deserved.

His manager definitely felt that way. This is how Mike Matheny put it:

“That’s a game that when your ace does that, you feel like you need to walk out of here with a win.”

When a pitcher has one of those off days, it is easy to shake off. This one, the Cards had a tougher time shaking off.

Ain’t that sweet?

Matheny, by the way, continues to strike me as someone not willing to credit the other guys when they beat him. No “tip of the cap” from him. He can lose, but he cannot be beaten. There’s a difference; think about it.

His assessment of Sunday’s pitchers duel:

“[Volquez] was good. Waino was great.”

Pirates run out same lineup — as they should

If you would not expect the Pirates to change lineups following a 12-run, 16-hit show, you will not be disappointed. Tonight, versus the Cards and righty Joe Kelly:

  • Marte 7
  • Snider 9
  • McCutchen 8
  • Alvarez 5
  • Martin 2
  • Walker 4
  • Ishikawa 3
  • Mercer 6
  • Liriano 1
We will probably get the first significant lineup switch (the only variation through five games has been Tony Sanchez catching in the Thursday afternoon game against the Cubs) tomorrow. Gaby Sanchez is almost certain to get the start at first against St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright. He and Travis Ishikawa are both hitless against Wainwright — but Ishikawa has fanned all five at-bats against the righty.
* * *
You may not have known what to expect going into this season — but having Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker swipe the Bucs’ first bases of the season could not have been one of them.
And how about Starling Marte being second to Andrew McCutchen’s five with three walks?

Apr 4: Pirates’ lineup status quo

The Pirates’ lineup for tonight should look pretty familiar:

  • Marte 7
  • Snider 9
  • McCutchen 8
  • Alvarez 5
  • Martin 2
  • Walker 4
  • Ishikawa 3
  • Mercer 6
  • Cole 1

It’s the same Clint Hurdle has used three of the first four games — and the only difference Thursday was Tony Sanchez catching and batting in the sixth hole (nudging Walker up to No. 5).

Why go status quo with a lineup that hasn’t produced? That is exactly the reason why — Hurdle is waiting for big producers like McCutchen (1-for-10) and Alvarez (1-for-15) to get going. Only way that will happen is if they keep playing.

Jeff Branson has been working with the guys to get them untracked.

Tonight, so will Shelby Miller: The Bucs beat up the Cards righty pretty well, last season: .319, with six homers in four meetings.

All is right with the world: Replay ADDS controversy

Traditionalists have dissed baseball’s new expanded replay system on the grounds it robs the game of two staples:

  • The human element, which gives umpires the license to goof up.
  • And the controversies, often eternal, which arise from the former.

Well, they should all be happy today. Good news: The staples are still around. Lots of people are bad-mouthing developments in last night’s Giants-Diamondbacks game — and, hey, that’s controversy right there.

But what transpired actually reinforced the human element — with more of the onus now on managers.

This is what happened, in a nutshell:

San Francisco skipper Bruce Bochy challenged the safe call on a pickoff throw to first by Matt Cain. The call was upheld, and Bochy instead was out — of challenges.

Mere minutes later, Arizona scored a run on an even more questionable play. But Bochy couldn’t question it.

So lots of people are saying the system isn’t working, if the idea is to get calls right.

I would think the idea is for the manager to make the right call, of when and what to challenge. If he wins his challenge, he keeps it. Pretty simple. This process becomes, as Clint Hurdle has said all along, one of the manager’s strategic decisions.

So the use of challenges becomes a new controversial subject, more fodder for second-guessing … more strategy!

Hey, maybe it can even make up for the strategic toll of the DH.

For Openers … New verse, same as the first.

Neil Walker said “it kinda felt like a rollover from last year.”

He was talking about the 1-0, 10-inning Opening Day win over the Cubs — and he wasn’t kidding.

Never mind the full house, the excitement, Francisco Liriano’s biting slider and the Shark Tank baring its teeth.

But … 1-0?

The ’13 Bucs put themselves on the map in a late-May stretch of four 1-0 victories within 11 days. That told them they’ve got the pitching and the nerve to compete with, and slay, the tough teams, confidence they never lost.

They got an early reminder that they’ve still got all of that.

* * *

Jack Wilson shared an interesting recollection about Andrew McCutchen prior to participating in the pre-game ceremonies honoring Pirates awards winners.

“I remember Freddy Sanchez and I walking out after a Sunday day game (in 2005), and he was doing his pre-Draft workout,” Wilson said, “and we stuck around a little to see what he can do. I think he was like 165 pounds then and he was putting ‘em father in BP than any of our guys at the time. So we were pretty much in awe.

“One of best things you can have in your career is watching young players go from the start to an established point of their careers. I’m honored to be here to hand him that (Silver Slugger) award.”

* * *

The Pirates heralded Opening Day with a set picture that was quite revealing.

Depicting uniformed Pirates players posed in front of PNC Park. the picture clearly had been taken at the end of last season — since it appeared late Sunday night, before  the Bucs had made their official return to the park.

The photo includes players who were certain to be back on the ’14 team — Pedro Alvarez, Russell Martin, Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Walker, McCutchen and Liriano.

No first baseman or right fielder (Garrett Jones would be non-tendered) or shortstop (Clint Barmes’ return was unknown, and Jordy Mercer’s status may also been up in the air).

Then again, with Liriano the only starter pictured, I could just be full of hot air — there is this thing called Photoshop, I’m told.

* * *

How can you tell it is a special occasion, like Opening Day?

Easy: The Pirate Parrot wears his black tails (as in, tuxedo) to the park.

* * *

“We’re still chasing,” Clint Hurdle said, a reference to the fact last season ended for his Pirates in the Division Series.

The glib manager has his own unique way of describing what the team strives for:

“We’re looking for excellence, not success. Success is comparing yourself to somebody else. Excellence is being the best you can be.”

* * *

Jim Leyland, taking another field-level look around PNC Park:

“This is the most beautiful, best ballpark in America. And I’ve been to all of them.”

Opening Day will have a Holliday — but no Holiday

Bulletin: You will still have to come down with the flu to attend Opening Day.
Matt Holliday is still in. But a National Holiday is out.
Yep, the White House has turned down the petition to have baseball’s annual rebirth declared a National Holiday. The drive generated more than the 100,000 signatures required for formal consideration, but received a quick thumb from the Administration.
The “out” call was made gently by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who ended his statement thusly:
“While we are sympathetic to your pitch to make Opening Day a national holiday, it’s a little outside our strike zone: creating permanent federal holidays is traditionally the purview of Congress. So, it’s up to the men and women on Capitol Hill to decide whether to swing at this pitch.”
* * *
Anyone wondering what kind of Spring Training was had by Justin Morneau? Pretty much like his month with the Pirates: No home runs, three doubles his only extra-base hits, three RBIs, a .229 average.
Morneau still has not hit a home run since he left the American League. He’ll find a few in Denver’s altitude, but letting him go had to be GM Neal Huntington’s easiest call.
* * *
Let’s do a spring clean-up on the Pirates’ other high-profile exes:
A.J. Burnett: 6.05 ERA, nine walks, 12 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings; Down
Marlon Byrd: .298, two homers, eight RBIs; Up
Garrett Jones: .200, but three homers and 10 RBIs; Typical G.I.
* * *
Final cuts sometimes tell you more about a team than the players kept.
For instance, I’m thinking the Mets may not be so bad after all if they could not find room for Daisuke Matsuzaka, who had a 25-to-4 strikeouts-to-walks ration in 23 2/3 innings, along with a solid 3.04 ERA. He’s been sent to Triple-A Las Vegas.
And the Pirates? Vin Mazzaro is out after putting up a 1.24 WHIP and holding batters to a .239 average. Bet there are 25 other teams that broke camp with guys in their bullpens who only see those numbers in their dreams. The Bucs have become a relief factory, and Vin just fell off the conveyor belt.
I’d wish him luck — but the team that picks him up will have all the luck.
* * *
Rolled through the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Drove high above PNC Park. The heart skipped a few beats, and I swear I could hear Roberto urge, “Arriba! Arriba!” and the crack of Stargell’s bat answer pleas to put one “On The Hill Will.”
They’re ready up in heaven. We’re certainly ready down here on Earth.
Let The Show begin. Hope you all find it enthralling — and, again, unforgettable.
Happy Opening Day!
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