On the Pirates: No hill too high for Cats

Alvarez leads tight Lynchburg clan to top of Carolina League

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CHICAGO -- There has been little to like in the Pirates' minor league system to date, with few individuals rising to fresh levels and three of the top four affiliates owning losing records.

The lone exception to the latter, though, has made for quite the story in Lynchburg.

The high Class A Hillcats are 27-15, best record in the Carolina League, and they have done it with the sort of chemistry that leads to championships: A remarkable 18 of those 27 victories -- including another last night in which a four-run deficit against Potomac turned into 8-5 in the Hillcats' favor -- have been come-from-behind. Three have involved walkoff hits, and the record in extra innings is 4-1.

Cardiac Cats, they are being called.

P.J. Forbes, Lynchburg's first-year manager, credits a camaraderie that has been forged in a hurry among an all-new staff and a mostly new roster.

"They've blended so well and really feed off each other, and that started in spring training," Forbes said from Frederick, Md. "They established right away who would keep the team loose, who would do the policing. It's been a lot of fun to this point, and the players have made it easy on us."

The one who would do the loudest talking with his bat, no surprise, has been $6.355 million first-round draft pick Pedro Alvarez, the Hillcats' No 3. hitter. His average is at a miserable .238, but he has nine home runs and 35 RBIs, each ranking among the league's top two. And, most striking, of those home runs, six gave the Hillcats the lead, two tied the score (each in the ninth inning on the road), three brought the winning RBI, and two were walkoffs.

Lynchburg is 8-1 when Alvarez goes deep.

"We want Pedro to be the guy," Forbes said. "That's why we drafted him and signed him for that amount of money. We wanted to see how he performs in those situations and, obviously, he's performed. And that's exciting. I think it says a lot about the kid that he wants to be up in that situation and wants to deliver."

Some high-profile prospects are shunned or resented, but Forbes described Alvarez as a leader.

"What I like is that you don't know if he's 4 for 5 or 0 for 5. I hear him all the time in the dugout, whether he's succeeded or failed, pulling for the next guy. I think that says a lot about a guy's character and the type of teammate he is. Our guys can learn a lot about that, whether he's a first-rounder or not."

Other Lynchburg standouts of prospect age have been Ronald Uviedo, a starter with a 2-1 record and 3.27 ERA; Michael Dubee, a reliever with a 1.85 ERA and 31 strikeouts against two walks; Matt Hague, a first baseman batting .289 with 19 RBIs; Jose de los Santos, a second baseman batting .260 with 18 steals.

An upgrade at No. 9

Tony Beasley, the Pirates' third base coach, approached manager John Russell early this spring with an idea: Why not separate the duty of instructing the pitchers on how to hit?

"I felt like they should be able to handle the bat better, and I thought I could make a difference if I made it one of my focuses," Beasley said. "It's such a big part of the game, and we weren't very proficient at it. You know you're going to get fastballs to hit in that spot, so why not put them in play. Why shouldn't the pitchers be able to help themselves?"

Improvement can be found in some numbers. While the pitchers are batting .123, which is 13th in the National League and down slightly from the .127 of last season, they have two Zach Duke doubles and a Paul Maholm home run, a pace for 12 extra-base hits that would blow away the four of last season. Maybe most important, they have succeeded in getting down 11 sacrifice bunts, a pace of 44 that is better than the 30 of last year.

Beasley identifies Duke, batting .235, as "our most prolific hitter" due to a compact swing. He described Maholm, pictured at right, who forced 18 pitches in three at-bats from Adam Wainwright in the season opener in St. Louis, and Ian Snell, batting .200, as "coming along." Jeff Karstens was drafted as a catcher but is 0 for 10, Ross Ohlendorf 1 for 17.

"Those two came from the American League, but Ross has been our most improved hitter of the group," Beasley said. "Overall, I used to feel like we had eight hitters and an out in our lineup. Now, I at least feel like it's 81/2."

Not exactly twins

Rarely are these siblings in sync.

The Brothers LaRoche own a combined 880 major-league games. They have been teammates for 97 with the Pirates. And on only six dates have they managed to drive in runs together.

"Really?" Adam remarked semi-sarcastically. "That's not bad."

They expected worse. When one brother gets hot, such as Adam in early April, the other goes frozen-tundra cold, such as Andy with his 0-for-13 start. Or vice versa, such as Andy's current hot stretch while Adam slumps.

Yet Wednesday and Thursday in Washington marked rare LaRoche outings: Each drove in two each night.

"Been a long time," Andy noted.

The previous time each had a multiple-RBI performance was Sept. 17, against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Adam drove in five, Andy two.

"We talked, like, 'Man, can we both have a decent game in the same day?' " Adam said. "We just haven't done it."

The brothers were on the same page in one regard: Each ended the Nationals series with 20 RBIs for the season.

First round ... and still counting

Teams generally are wary of casting off first-round picks, no matter their performance, but the Pirates did so with two -- pitchers Bryan Bullington and John Van Benschoten -- in a matter of two months last year. And both have mostly struggled since.

Van Benschoten has gone 2-4 with a 5.66 ERA in eight starts for the Chicago White Sox's Class AAA affiliate in Charlotte and, despite a dearth of pitching with the parent club, has yet to get a sniff in the majors. His walks are down -- 15 in 411/3 innings -- but eight home runs have been the killer.

He has been slowed much of the season by lower back problems.

"I've been trying to pitch through it," Van Benschoten said. "And it wasn't smart."

Bullington is solely a reliever now in the Toronto system, and that includes a 3.00 ERA in four brief appearances for the Blue Jays. He is back with Class AAA Las Vegas, where an excellent ratio of 20 strikeouts to two walks is overshadowed there by a 5.12 ERA in 12 appearances.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog .


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