Alvarez Pumps Up the Power for the Pirates

For a person who just lifted his batting average nearly 50 points in the span of six hours, Pedro Alvarez didn't seem to have the swagger that normally accompanies an MLB heavy hitter.

Maybe it's because the soft-spoken Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman has been down this road before. Maybe it's because when you start the day hitting .108 — as Alvarez was when he woke up Wednesday morning — it doesn't take much for that number to take an upward tick.

Or maybe Alvarez is simply sticking to the gameplan, one that measures progress in steady play, not a handful of bold strokes.

"I'm just trying to keep it as simple as possible," Alvarez said.

Simple looked pretty easy during perhaps the best afternoon of the 25-year-old's still young career. Alvarez homered in both games of a doubleheader with the Colorado Rockies and added a double — off a lefthander no less — as the Pirates earned a split.

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It was the kind of performance the Pirates imagined after they made the former Vanderbilt star the second overall pick in the 2008 draft.

Alvarez's smash to center in the bottom of the seventh of the first game briefly tied it. His screamer off the foul pole in right in the second game capped a five-run fifth inning for baseball's most beleaguered offense.

"I'm just trying not to overthink, overanalyze situations and try to keep it as instinctual as possible," Alvarez said. "I think when you go out there and you just try to trust your abilities and try to just play the game, everything kind of takes care of itself."

If the Pirates are to remain competitive in the National League Central, they need Alvarez to have more days like Wednesday. Pittsburgh is off to an 8-10 start heading into this weekend's three-game set with Atlanta, a record that could be appreciably better if the Pirates could find ways to cross the plate.

They are last in the majors in runs (41) and 28th in batting average (.221). Only the spectacular performance by the pitching staff — second it baseball with a 2.58 ERA — has kept Pittsburgh competitive.

Even so-so hitting would make the Pirates interesting, and Alvarez is the key component of a lineup mostly suited to playing small ball.

He showed flashes of his prodigious power during his rookie season in 2010, smacking 16 homers in 95 games while hitting .256 on a team that finished with baseball's worst record.

The Pirates took a major step forward in 2011 under new manager Clint Hurdle. Alvarez did not. Hampered by injuries and inconsistency he hit a paltry .191 with just four homers in 74 games and the fan base started to get restless.

The evidence is in Hurdle's mail box. There are letters wondering if Pittsburgh swung and missed on the soft-spoken kid born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York City.

"You want to read my mail, there's not a whole lot of us (who believe)," Hurdle said. "The most important part is the ones that are making the decisions, we've got patience."

Even if it was tested a bit by Alvarez last fall when he declined an invitation to play in the Arizona Fall League so he could work out on his own.

Still, general manager Neal Huntington told anyone who would listen that Alvarez was an important part of a rebuilding project now at the end of its second decade.

The Pirates brought Alvarez along slowly this spring, often platooning him with Josh Harrison or Yamaico Navarro to protect the left-handed Alvarez from left-handed pitchers, a weak spot throughout his development.

Hurdle points out, however, "we're not dodging them all" and there's proof Alvarez is making progress even when the ball is caught. He hit a towering flyball to the warning track center off St. Louis lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski over the weekend, a shot that may have gone out if the temperature had been 15 degrees warmer.

Alvarez made such good contact Hurdle made a point of it without being asked, and though both of Alvarez's homers on Wednesday were against righthanders, he doubled in the eighth inning of the second game, sticking with a fastball away from Rex Brothers and drilling it to left.

It was a disciplined at-bat. Rather than overswinging, a habit the strikeout-prone Alvarez is still trying to break, he stayed behind the ball and didn't try to pull it down the line.

"That's what we want to see," Hurdle said. "He's going to be a fulltime player. We're just trying to work him through and pick spots."

While the Pirates remain patient with Alvarez, he is trying to do the same. It's not easy. There's an urgency in his voice when he talks about his rough start. He's still hitting just .156, though six of his seven hits have produced runs. The only way for his average to go up is to get on the field.

"Everything with this game is about repetition," he said. "The more looks I get, a little more comfortable I'll be able to get."

Hurdle is eagerly awaiting the day he can pencil Alvarez in the lineup without examining the matchup. That day may be getting closer.

"We are slaves to success sometimes mentally," Hurdle said. "Nothing breeds confidence in sport like success."

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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