If at first base you don’t succeed, try again

Cheap shot alert: What follows may not be fair, given both the perfection of hindsight and the fact we are only at the one-sixth pole of the 2014 season.

However, perusing the state of left-handed hitting first basemen who have recently traveled through Pittsburgh will have Pirates fans rolling their eyes.

Finding that dependable complement to Gaby Sanchez has of course been one of the Bucs’ top priorities, and maybe still is. With that in mind, cheek out the current doings of some guys who have filled that role and passed on:

  • Justin Morneau: .357-6-22; I had a sense in Coors Field he will have the numbers to make the Pirates look bad for their decision to not even compete to keep him, but it could be more than that — the lifetime American Leaguer may just have needed a little extra time to adjust to a new league.
  • Lyle Overbay: .308-1-7, including 3-for-5 as a pinch-hitter; here’s one to make fans gnash their teeth.
  • Adam LaRoche: .312-4-17.
  • Garrett Jones: .237-4-11.
Not making any of that easier to go down is that the current holder of the job, Ike Davis, hasn’t been able to shed the troubles he brought with him from New York.
Davis is batting .185 with a pair of homers and nine RBIs and, on that “dependable” scale, it’s even worse than than. Davis’ home runs were a pair of grand slams (the first with the Mets), meaning that, otherwise, he has drive in one run in 49 at-bats.
Oh, he is also 0-for-16 going into the opener of a brief, two-game series in Baltimore.
Maybe Ike can catch some of Camden Yards’ Davis Karma. Chris won’t be needing it, being on the Orioles’ DL.

Pirates waiting for Polanco to … slump?

Getting inside the head of Neal Huntington:

“Gregory, could you slump for us? Please?”

The Bucs’ GM may not want Gregory Polanco to hit a lull — as opposed to the smashes he’s been hitting all over the International League — because it would ease the increasing pressure on the club to finally get him up. But — and this is strictly speculation on my part — it would give him a chance to take the only test he hasn’t yet passed.

Namely, how does he handle and react to adversity? Always one of the major questions about can’t-miss prospects who go through the ranks dominating their peers. In the Majors, everyone is fed humility at some point; how will The Guy spit it out?

Polanco certainly hasn’t been humbled in Indianapolis. We’ve been giving you our Polanco Daily on Twitter (@Tom_Singer). Here’s the Polanco Monthly, his first at the Triple-A level:

  • .400 batting average
  • 38 hits (12 for extra bases) vs. 16 strikeouts
  • .457 on-base percentage
  • .632 slugging average
  • 25 RBIs — in 24 games
  • Hitting even better against lefties [.405] than right-handers [.397].
All that, while the big boys are struggling to score runs — fewer than three in 14 of their 26 games.
No wonder the outcry grows for the call to go out to Polanco.
While obviously not confessing any Polanco slump-wish, Huntington regularly refers to “making the adjustment to the adjustments pitchers will make to him.”
Indians manager Dean Treanor patiently points out that there are things outside the batter’s box Polanco has to work on: Taking the proper routes to balls in right field, a relatively new position for him [sorry, center is taken in Pittsburgh] and using his speed properly on the bases [he has been thrown out on half of his eight steal attempts].
Looking at the numbers, no one wants to hear about that. Fundamentals, schmundamentals.
“We’re in a statistics-driven business, and there is no question a .400 average over 90-some at-bats is very impressive,” Huntington says. “But sometimes you can’t rush these things.”
Still, a scout from another organization makes a very interesting observation in today’s Tribune-Review:
“Polanco is embarrassing the Pirates by them not bringing him to the big leagues ASAP. He would be an immediate impact bat in the middle of their lineup.”

My own response to the Free Polanco movement has gone something like this: This isn’t basketball, where one man can reverse a team’s direction.
And whenever I make that point, I get hit with Yasiel Puig, whose arrival last year kick-started the Dodgers awake. So there.
Oh, by the way. The Dodgers did not page Puig until early June.
So there.

Cole gets peeved, then gets curious hook

This is my third year of covering the Pirates and, to the best of my recollection, today was the first benches-clearing melee they have been involved in all that time.

No one is in favor of basebrawling. But everyone is in favor of a team showing some spunk. Clint Hurdle always preaches making the opposition “uncomfortable.” Brushing people off the plate is one way to do that. Speaking up against a perceived wrong is another way.

Except for last season’s detour, obviously no team has been as comfortable against the Bucs as the Brewers. They’ve shown up the Pirates for most of a decade on the field, in the box score. That’s the game, we get that. Showing them up in the batter’s box, though, is a different matter.

Gerrit Cole certainly thought so. Not like he called out an innocent angel. Check with Brian McCann.

Anyway, the best part of the incident, from the Pirates’ angle, was that it totally overshadowed what could have been the major post-game topic otherwise.

No one (I didn’t cover the game, taking a rare day off) apparently asked Hurdle about the removal of Gerrit Cole. 

I’m not finding blanket fault with the move. There may have been very sound reasoning behind it. But the point is, the post-game question apparently never came up.

Although Cole left a fastball out over the plate for Mark Reynolds’ tying homer, he otherwise had a smooth eighth inning. He retired the side on only seven pitches. He averaged 95-plus on his fastballs in that inning. He finished it with a total of 91 pitches – by far his fewest in any start this season, and in fact his fewest since Aug. 8, when the Marlins chased him after five.

Yet, Hurdle called on Jason Grilli to protect a 2-1 lead against the  same lineup sequence that had ambushed him 18 hours earlier.

So help me, when Grilli began by retiring Juan Segura, my immediate thought was, “Well, at least we’ll have a tie.”

Sometimes, I hate my instincts.

Cole gets peeved, then gets curious hook

This is my third year of covering the Pirates and, to the best of my recollection, today was the first benches-clearing melee they have been involved in all that time.

No one is in favor of basebrawling. But everyone is in favor of a team showing some spunk. Clint Hurdle always preaches making the opposition “uncomfortable.” Brushing people off the plate is one way to do that. Speaking up against a perceived wrong is another way.

Except for last season’s detour, obviously no team has been as comfortable against the Bucs as the Brewers. They’ve shown up the Pirates for most of a decade on the field, in the box score. That’s the game, we get that. Showing them up in the batter’s box, though, is a different matter.

Gerrit Cole certainly thought so. Not like he called out an innocent angel. Check with Brian McCann.

Anyway, the best part of the incident, from the Pirates’ angle, was that it totally overshadowed what could have been the major post-game topic otherwise.

No one (I didn’t cover the game, taking a rare day off) apparently asked Hurdle about the removal of Gerrit Cole. 

I’m not finding blanket fault with the move. There may have been very sound reasoning behind it. But the point is, the post-game question apparently never came up.

Although Cole left a fastball out over the plate for Mark Reynolds’ tying homer, he otherwise had a smooth eighth inning. He retired the side on only seven pitches. He averaged 95-plus on his fastballs in that inning. He finished it with a total of 91 pitches – by far his fewest in any start this season, and in fact his fewest since Aug. 8, when the Marlins chased him after five.

Yet, Hurdle called on Jason Grilli to protect a 2-1 lead against the  same lineup sequence that had ambushed him 18 hours earlier.

So help me, when Grilli began by retiring Juan Segura, my immediate thought was, “Well, at least we’ll have a tie.”

Sometimes, I hate my instincts.

“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?

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