Bucs face tough call on Alvarez/1B as TD nears

MILWAUKEE — As always, there are a lot of uncertainties approaching MLB’s annual July 31 Non-Waiver Trade Deadline. But here is one definite: The Pirates are in the process of making the hard decision of whether they need an upgrade at first base for the stretch.

“Our general manager knows as well as I do what we look to identify as strengths and weaknesses on our club,” manager Clint Hurdle said prior to Saturday night’s game here. “I don’t know what will happen two weeks down the road. Could it be different? Yeah, it could be. Could it be the same? It could be.

“I’m not a fan of saying, ‘We need A,B and C, when A,B and C is out there (in the clubhouse). So I’m not gonna bang the drum for somebody when I’ve got a team full of players out there. We will do everything we can to fortify and make our club better.”

This is an extremely sensitive issue, particularly for a manager who recognizes and appreciates Pedro Alvarez’s work ethic and commitment, which started with him buying into changing positions from third to first.

Alvarez’s 15th error of the season, letting a grounder through his legs to set up a two-run seventh inning Friday night, was another game changer. Regularly removed for defensive purposes late in even tied games, Alvarez’s 15 errors, most of routine plays, have come in 575 innings. The Reds’ Joey Votto is second among National League first basemen with five errors, in 738 innings.

Overall, Pittsburgh first basemen have combined for 18 errors. The other 14 National League teams average four errors at the position.

Alvarez also stands out as the only lefty-hitting power threat in the Bucs’ lineup, and took 12 homers and 41 RBIs into Saturday night’s game.

Ironically, Hurdle brought up the name of a ‘60s era Buccos first baseman known as Dr. Strangeglove for his fielding misadventures.

“Dick Stuart said, ‘Long as you drive in more than you let in, you get to play.’ I always liked that concept,” Hurdle said. “Play determines playing time — they all know that. We’ve become a team predicated on defense — they all know that as well.

“Players know the game. There’s no sense sending a message ahead of time. Wanting something and getting someone at that position are two different ends of the spectrum. So to bring it up and then not be able to deliver … I don’t know what good that does, either.

“I’m a big fan of doing the best you can with what you got and where you are — until that changes.”

The Bucs just topped the series that couldn’t be

Many years ago, I covered the most amazing, most consequential first-half curtain-dropper. The two-time World Series Champion New York Yankees — the Bronx Zoo Bombers of Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, Lou Piniella, Thurman Munson — pulled into Anaheim Stadium to face the upstart Angels.

Those Angels had five modestly winning seasons in their 18-year existence, but held a 1 1/2 game lead over Texas in the American League West.

Game 1. Nolan Ryan is no-hitting the Yankees with one out in the seventh inning. Jim Spencer hits a line drive to center on which Rick Miller makes a fantastic diving effort as the ball kicks off his glove.

In the press box, official scorer Dick Miller — no relation — rules “E-8.” Miller has an upcoming book on Ryan, and another no-hitter would spike sales. Angels GM Buzzie Bavasi storms into the press box and berates Miller, calling the situation a “national embarrassment.” The reporter’s act will signal the end of active media members acting as official scorers.

With one out in the 9th, Reggie Jackson lines a clean single to center to break up Ryan’s no-hitter. All the way to first, Reggie runs backwards, gesturing animatedly up at the press box.

Otherwise, it’s a routine 6-1 Angels win, except for the fact five of their runs were scored with two outs.

Game 2. The Yankees lead 6-0 after five. The Angels chip away, and tie it at 7 in the bottom of the ninth on a two-out, three-run homer by Don Baylor. In the 12th, Brian Downing doubles and scores on a single by Merv Rettenmund for an 8-7 walk-off.

Game 3, the last game before the All-Star Game break. The Yankees grab a 4-0 lead in the second inning behind Ron Guidry, in the midst of an 18-win season to follow up his 25-3 of 1978. With the Angels still trailing 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Tom Donohue draws a one out walk off Guidry and, with two outs, Bobby Grich homers over the right-center fence for a 5-4 walk-off.

That was in 1979. For 35 years, I never thought I’d ever again see anything like it.

I just spent a weekend that topped it, of course, with both Pirates walk-offs not only coming in extra innings, but after they trailed — three times — in extra innings,

Through Sunday, there have been 208,678 games played in the Major Leagues. This was the eighth instance of a team winning back-to-back extra-inning walk-offs. And it just might have been the first time ever a team did it from behind in both.

Never coming down from their psych, those Angels banked their first division title. 

Oh, something else happened in 1979. The Bucs won the World Series.

The ’15 script has been written.

The (Friday) Windup, “Marte on deck” edition

As Starling Marte just told MLB.com’s Adam Berry, “I’m ready to play.” So there doesn’t figure to be a DL stint for his sensitive left side, and we should see him this weekend.

That makes Clint Hurdle happy.

“We’re a better team with him in play,” said Hurdle, not shocking anyone. … 

Better than with Travis Ishikawa?

I asked Jung Ho Kang — yes, in English — whether the ninth-inning drive he hit last night to left-center (383 feet in PNC Park) that was caught near the warning track would have been out of Seoul’s Mokdong Stadium (371 feet).

“No. Pitch inside, hit it off the handle,” he said.

Yes, again, in English. … 

Right-hander Preston Guilmet, just claimed on waivers by the Dodgers from Tampa Bay, was on the same University of Arizona pitching staff as Mark Melancon. … 

You’ve heard knee-jerk references to strong, sustained pitching performances turning baseball’s clock back to 1968. That’s the year Bob Gibson had an ERA of 1.12 for 34 starts and 304 2/3 innings. Well,Zack Greinke is here to be the face of the trend: He has a 1.39 ERA  and will be the first to take a sub-1.40 figure iinto the All-Star break since … 1968. … 

The (Monday) Windup, Kang-sized problem edition

Don’t get me wrong: No one is dispensable. But with the possible exception of struggling outfielder Gregory Polanco, Josh Harrison was probably the least traumatic regular for the Bucs to replace, thanks to Jung Ho Kang — who is making his 31st at third base tonight, to 51 for J-Hay. … 

The best hope is that the second medical opinion Harrison will get once the swelling in his left hand subsides discounts a torn ligament in the thumb. That would require surgery, and an extended recovery time. … 

I’m going to place my cards on the table. The Pirates I expect to be added to the N.L. All-Star team tonight: Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett. With either Mark Melancon or Francisco Cervelli a Final Vote candidate. … 

If it happens, Burnett will be at work when the announcement airs, dealing to Padres:

Do you think the PNC Park will let him hear it? … 

Starling Marte is also out, for an indeterminate time, with discomfort in the left side. The Cardinals are approaching for the big pre-All-Star Game break showdown. Are the Pirates just trying to play fair by evening the playing field for the Redbirds missing Matt Holliday and Matt Adams? … 

The (Wednesday) Windup, “Cole Bug” edition

Not everybody was buying that Brandon Phillips was scratched from the Reds’ original lineup due to a jammed left thumb. Some people around the park felt it was Cole-itis: An allergy to 97-mph fastballs and vanishing sliders from Gerrit Cole. … 

One of the consequences of Phillips’ removal is Billy Hamilton returning to leadoff and Mike Leake, of all pitchers, batting ninth for the Reds. Leake is 3-for-6, including a homer, off Cole. …

The lineup that’ll try to bring the Bucs their first win over Leake in 12 starts:

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

Reminder: Cole has allowed multiple runs (really, only two each time) in only three of his last 124 innings, since Sept. 7. …

While the Cole Train goes for his 12th win — he’d be the first Buccos pitcher with that many in the first half since Ken Brett in 1974 — Stewart goes for his 13th. Pittsburgh is 12-3 in his 15 starts behind the plate. … 

A win would be the Bucs’ eighth straight at PNC Park, second longest in the yard’s history. The 2004 club clipped off 10 in a row. … 

The (Tuesday) Rewind, “Shark Sharp” edition

While doing a national radio gig yesterday afternoon, I was actually asked whether the Pirates had any concerns about Mark Melancon’s shrinking strikeout rate and whether it might jeopardize his job as the team’s closer. Seriously.

I mean, are you kidding? A few hours later, the guy went out and converted his 22nd consecutive save — nine of which, by the way, have been one-run, no-margin-for-error saves, matching the total of those he had all last season.

Oh — and he did it by striking out all three Reds he faced. How’s that for a strikeout rate?. .. 

The Bucs will admit to having gotten away with one last night. About the time Jeff Locke surrendered his seventh hit to his 11th batter, they had to be regretting not having activated Chris Volstad to the game roster. He’d been paged from Indianapolis “as a precaution” in case they deemed an extra bullpen arm was needed — which certainly appeared to be the case in the early going. … 

Typically, outfielders are praised for their ability to go back on balls. But is there anyone better at coming in for balls than Starling Marte? Two snares last night any other left fielder would have fielded on a hop, no thought whatsoever to going for the catch. … 

The 7-run fourth inning was the Bucs’ first multi-homer inning at home since … Opening Day, when Pedro Alvarez and Corey Hart went yard in the seventh inning against the Tigers. …

The (Saturday) Windup, “28-K Runup” edition

This late-afternoon’s pitching matchup could be of historic proportions. It may be impossible to actually research, but wonder how many times starters faced each other off 28 punchouts in their previous starts?

Washington’s Max Scherzer fanned 16 in his one-hitter Sunday against the Brewers. The next day, Francisco Liriano whiffed 12 in eight innings against Detroit. Furthermore, each had only one walk in the gem. So it could be quite a show, although Clint Hurdle offered a familiar caveat:

“That’s the beauty of the game: We have an idea of what will happen, but how many times does that play out? Enjoy, watch and learn. It should be a good match up, but we’ll see where it goes.” … 

Bryce Harper (hammy) is back in the Nationals’ lineup, and this is how the Bucs will confront Scherzer:

Liriano will have to introduce Harper to his wicked slider. The two have never met before. …

Gregory Polanco “just had the wind knocked out of him” according to Hurdle in that collision with the right-field wall. … 

Hurdle also called attention to the fact Polanco grounded into his first double play — on his 248th plate appearance — when he hit a grounder right to the second base bag in the seventh inning of Friday night’s game. …

The “stomach discomfort” that had Neil Walker out of the lineup for a fourth straight day actually is some abdominal tightness, painful and doubtless a little disconcerting to the second baseman: Exactly a year ago, he was on the DL after abdominal discomfort led to an emergency appendectomy. Thankfully, you can have your appendix removed only once. …

The (Friday) Rewind, “Whiff-le ball alert” edition

Soooo. … The Bucs warmed up for their Saturday meeting with Max Scherzer by fanning a season-high (in nine innings) 13 times against Joe Ross (Township) and a couple Nationals relievers? There could be a breeze in Nationals Park tonight. … 

A.J. Burnett was only the fourth pitcher in the last three season to allow 14 or more hits while gutting his way through 6 2/3 innings Friday night:

  • May 7, 2015: Tim Hudson, Giants v Marlins (15)
  • May 9, 2014: Brandon Maurer, Mariners v Royals (14)
  • Sept. 6, 2013: James Shields, Royals v Tigers (14)
Seeing A.J. endure that and allow only three earned runs — the last of which required Gregory Polanco to slam into the right-field wall — was one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever witnessed. Guy is always credited with setting a good example, and A.J. definitely walked that talk last night. … 
Clint Hurdle last night said Polanco should be good to go today. The big post-game ice pack on Polanco’s left knee said “No.” … 

I’m not saying that the Buccos offense has been slightly inconsistent, but … After a stretch of 12 runs in seven games, they erupted for an 11-0 win over the White Sox on Monday … and since have tallied 10 runs in four games. … 

For Buccos pitching, even when they lose, the hits keep coming (or not): They have surrendered one home run in the last 86 innings — Geovany Soto’s seventh-inning shot off Gerrit Cole on Thursday. … 

The (Friday) Windup, “Hearing Footsteps” Edition

The Pirates go into action tonight trailing the Cardinals by 4 games; they haven’t been as close since April 29, when they were 3 out. … 

The Bucs also bring in an eight-game winning streak, already their third of the season of 5-plus games. In all of 2014, they had only one of those — and not until Sept. 19. … 

While the Nationals will be without three big guns — Bryan Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth — only Neil Walker (still beset by a stomach ailment) is missing from the Bucs’ usual lineup. All the pregame nuggets you need:

Sounded like Chicago was as glad to see me leave, as I was to leave Chicago. As I was checking out of my midtown hotel, this was the tune playing over the hotel’s sound system: “Hit the road Jack, and don’t you come back no more, no more …”

Entering weekend play, the Phillies last got a win from a starting pitcher on May 23 (Cole Hamels, over the Nationals). In that interim, Pirates starters gathered 17 wins. … 

Looking forward to Sunday’s Nationals Presidents Race, you’d think the Father of our Country (George Washington) will be a shoo-in on Father’s Day, no? … 

Cole and the Candy Man: Gerrit Cole has joined John Candelaria (spanning 1977-78) as the only Pirates pitchers under 25 since 1926 to mine 11 wins out of 13 starts. … 

The (Thursday) Windup, “More in Stewart’s furnace than just Cole” Edition

With the Cardinals’ afternoon loss against the Twins, the Bucs will begin tonight’s game within 4 1/2 games of division leading St. Louis — the closest they have been to the top since May 1. …

The Bucs will begin tonight’s game with a staff ERA of 1.74 through the first 15 games of this month. As the brilliant minds at the Elias Sports Bureau tell us, these are the lowest team ERAs on the record for the month of June:

How long can they keep turning away hitters and turning back the clock? … 

With Neil Walker dealing with a “stomach ailment,” Josh Harrison is pressed into second-base duty, resulting in Corey Hart getting the start against a right-hander (Jeff Samardzija). It’s not Hart’s first go against a righty; his first two starts of the season, in the opening week, were against the Brewers’ Jimmy Nelson and Detroit’s Shane Greene.

  • Harrison 2b
  • Marte lf
  • McCutchen cf
  • Kang 3b
  • Alvarez 1b
  • Polanco rf
  • Mercer ss
  • Hart DH
  • Stewart c
  • [Cole p]

Stewart has worked a fabulous catcher’s ERA of 1.66 this season, and you’re shortchanging him if you associate that number with the fact he usually catches the arguably best pitcher in the rotation. Perhaps surprisingly, fewer than half of Stewart’s innings behind the plate have come with Gerrit Cole on the mound ( 60 1/3 of a total of 135 1/3). … 

As usual, Clint Hurdle has been holding his pre-game media briefing in the manager’s office, which in U.S. Cellular Field is very … well, let’s just say cozy. Doesn’t take many of them to make it wall-to-wall reporters.

Pirates media guru Dan Hart asked Hurdle whether he’d prefer to hold the presser in the dugout, “for my comfort,” Hurdle grinned, setting up his punchline.

“I told Dan I’m very comfortable here. I enjoy watching your guys’ Pilates class,” said Hurdle, referring to the body contortions required to get in and out of his closet … I mean, office. … 

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