It's simpler than it looks.
There was no previously unsolvable algorithm that Pedro Alvarez recently deciphered, unlocking his ability at the plate. According to Pirates coaches, his success in the past two weeks, and the return of his power, resulted from a basic mental adjustment.
"The first thing is, he's swinging the bat," manager Clint Hurdle said.
In the 11 games since April 21 that Alvarez played entering the weekend, he hit .400 with five home runs and four doubles.
"It was just a high percentage of called strikes," Hurdle said of issues that hampered him. "Thirty-three percent of his at-bats last season, he hit from an 0-2 count."
That contributed, in part, to his regression in 2011 when he hit .191 with four home runs. He also missed games due to injury. During spring training, he notched strikeout after strikeout and through his first 10 games of the season had two hits -- both homers -- in 30 at-bats and 15 strikeouts.
The improvement began with simply taking a swing.
"You need to swing the bat and find out where that'll take you," Hurdle said.
"You can talk a lot about a lot of things, but none of them really make any sense to me and are a waste of time until we do this one."
From there, they could work on the swing itself.
"He's keeping a consistent backside angle of the barrel," said hitting coach Gregg Ritchie, who noted that an incorrect angling of the bat affects the position of the head, which impairs the batter's swing path and line of sight.
Opposing pitchers undoubtedly will adjust, and this level of production is unlikely to continue. But Alvarez, Ritchie said, has found a way to sustain his feeling at the plate.
"It's a routine," Ritchie said. "Routine ends up being lethal once you keep grinding it out and letting it happen. He's finding out a way to let it happen, and it's a beautiful thing."
McDonald puts it together
During a day off in spring training, James McDonald and Rod Barajas traveled to Clearwater, Fla., to play in a minor league game. While there, Barajas noticed McDonald attempting to place his slider rather than let it loose.
"I told him during that game, 'The slider, it's almost like a power pitch,' " Barajas said. "You've got to throw that thing. Throw that thing right down the middle, hard, and let it do what it does.' Ever since that point, I saw the slider start to develop."
While that lesson from Barajas concerned physical execution, others have addressed the weaker areas of McDonald's game.
"As teammates, me and A.J. [Burnett], we kind of have the same personality, we love to have fun," Barajas said. "We look at J-Mac, and we have fun with him. He's a great kid, he can take a joke. We have fun with him about what his weaknesses are on the mound, but in a fun kind of way. I think he takes it in that way better."
The joking, Barajas said, resonates well with McDonald, one of the funniest men in the clubhouse, but provides helpful information as well.
McDonald entered the weekend with a 2.97 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 301/3 innings. In recent starts, he combined his tools -- a hard fastball, a great, sweeping curveball, a slider that Barajas said often resembles a curve because of its downward action -- into one efficient package, which has not always been the case in the past.
"I was looking forward to the reaction when he came in after the seventh inning [Monday], to not high-five guys and think you're done and mentally shut it down," Hurdle said. "I said, 'Ray [Searage], meet him at the top step and see if he's got anything left.' Ray met him right there, he was pumped up, he was ready to go."
McDonald pitched 72/3 innings and allowed three runs on seven hits in a 9-3 win in Atlanta.
Hanson an impressive combo
Through his first two seasons in the low minor leagues, shortstop Alen Hanson showed he could run. This year, he added power to his repertoire.
Hanson, a 19-year-old switch-hitter with low-Class A West Virginia, had 10 steals in 27 games entering the weekend. That mark, combined with his .402 average, 1.111 OPS, four home runs and four triples, made for an impressive first month of the season.
"From the day [director of Latin American scouting] Rene [Gayo] signed him, we've liked the athleticism, we've liked the life of the bat," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We believe he has the ability to play shortstop."
The Pirates signed Hanson in July 2009 out of the Dominican Republic. He hit .324 in the Dominican Summer League in 2010, then hit .260 with 24 steals in a 2011 season spent mostly in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
"With every young player, there's got to be some continued refinement of the mechanics and the consistency," Huntington said. "We love the life of the bat and the speed and the athletics and the tools package that he's put together."
Looking ahead: Nationals in town
The Pirates begin a three-game series Tuesday at PNC Park against the Washington Nationals, a team that began the season much like the Pirates.
Like the Pirates, the Nationals have pitched well and entered the weekend leading the National League in team ERA. The 25 runs allowed to the St. Louis Cardinals during the week spiked the Pirates' mark somewhat, but they still ranked sixth.
The Nationals, like the Pirates, have struggled to score runs early. They entered the weekend 13th in the NL with 3.28 runs per game. The Pirates, despite a recent increase, were last with 2.96.
The Nationals series also means an introduction to outfielder Bryce Harper, pictured at right. The 19-year-old Harper, who along with Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout is considered to be the best prospect in baseball, joined the Nationals April 28 and had six hits in his first 16 at-bats.
First Published May 6, 2012 4:00 AM