Pirates' Diaz, Bixler and yes, even Adam LaRoche, powering lineup

SAN DIEGO -- The heck with the hurt Pirates. Ryan Doumit? Nate McLouth? Jack Wilson? Who needs them?

Throw Freddy Sanchez and his first off day of 2009 into the brew, and still a Pirates lineup at the bargain-baseball-basement price of $12.8 million was potent enough yesterday to slug down the Padres and former Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy, 8-3, at Petco Park

Robinzon Diaz hit a critical two-out, two-run single to tie it in the fourth inning ... in his 12th major league at-bat.

Brian Bixler hit a cinching double that scored as many runs as he produced in 50 games last year ... two.

On deck

Game: Pirates vs. Milwaukee Brewers, 8:05 p.m., Miller Park.

TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).

Pitching: RHP Jeff Karstens (1-0, 3.60) vs. RHP Braden Looper (2-0, 2.12)

Key matchup: Watch out for the long ball. The Brewers, winners of four of the past five, have homered in 14 of their 18 games and have 23 total, most in the National League. Top individuals: Ryan Braun and Mike Cameron, with four each.

Of note: The Pirates' average of 15.2 pitches per inning is lowest in Major League Baseball. Only two other teams, the Kansas City Royals (15.66) and Toronto Blue Jays (15.88), are lower than 16.

Adam LaRoche ended an 0-for-8 run, not counting five walks, with a two-homer performance ... a career first for April.

And Ross Ohlendorf (2-2) outdueled a two-time All-Star who won the 2007 Cy Young in a rare unanimous vote.

Those, ladies and gentlemen, were your patchwork Pirates yesterday. And for the next few days and weeks, what with center fielder McLouth's strained oblique muscle requiring a few more days of rest, with catcher Doumit's surgically repaired wrist removing him from action for another four weeks minimum, with shortstop Wilson out two more weeks due to a sprained middle finger on his left, catching hand.

"It has been a difficult week, man," began LaRoche, a notorious slow starter who clubbed his fourth and career-high fifth home runs of April, a month in which he owned just 11 total in his previous five seasons -- including but one a year ago. "It stinks not having Nate around, Doumit right there. ... As good as they are, we don't lose a whole lot [without them]. I tell you where we really could have gotten exposed is if we don't have guys to back them up. We don't have to hide guys out there. That's the difference we have this year that we haven't had since I've been here."

There are a bunch of differences. Though, to be fair, it's still excruciatingly early. After all, this 11-7 start marks the first time they've been four games over .500 since 2002, when that team opened 12-5, slipped to 14-10 by April 30 and finished a woebegone 72-89. This marks their first winning April since that same 2002. And the victory yesterday was their fifth in six games, their seventh in nine and gave them a third consecutive series triumph. Next, they head for three games in Milwaukee where they've lost 15 in a bloody row.

Still, in a game when Diaz -- with that single to follow Peavy strikeouts of Eric Hinske and Andy LaRoche -- and Bixler combined to produce as many runs as the suddenly torrid bat of Adam LaRoche (with four), in a game when they beat a $11 million man in Peavy and a $27 million lineup in the Padres (losers of five of six), it was something to make them feel good.

"We're playing pretty good baseball right now," said John Grabow, whose two final innings finished off an Ohlendorf five-hitter that included just four balls hit beyond the infield. Grabow spoke of the backups, the organizational depth: "We got some horses down in the stable, ready to show what they can do."

"I think it has been great," Pirates manager John Russell said of the team's response to playing sans Doumit, McLouth and Wilson. "The guys realize where we're at. They're picking each other up."

"Especially to do that well against Peavy, it really shows a lot about our team," Ohlendorf said.

Ohlendorf gave the Pirates a majors-leading 12th quality start in 18 games, speeding up his rhythm after Adrian Gonzalez's park-record, 458-foot, two-run homer in the first. "The less I think between pitches, the better I do," said this Princeton graduate with a degree in operations research and financial engineering.

Added the elder LaRoche, after complimenting the bench and backups in yet another feel-good victory, "But it all starts with pitching. Those guys are setting the standard."

And winning, no matter who is playing behind them.

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com . First Published April 27, 2009 4:00 AM


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