There have been a few stretches this season that have shown Pirates fans just how special a player Pedro Alvarez can be. • August was one of them. • It was Alvarez's best month this season. He hit .322 with 5 home runs, 12 RBIs and a season-high 16 walks. His OPS, which measures on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, was a season-high .969.
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He often has credited his success this season to a level of comfort.
"I don't know how else to explain it," he said. "It's not easy, but the game doesn't speed up on you. You kind of feel in control."
But consistency is king in baseball, and often this season Alvarez has followed strong stretches with silent stretches.
Through it all, he has been a student of experience.
"I think what I've learned this year is the only consistent thing that you can have all the time is your mindset and your attitude and effort," he said. "That's what I've tried to maintain."
Alvarez finished August by being named the National League's player of the week, putting together one of his strongest six-day runs in his career.
But manager Clint Hurdle hesitates before saying that Alvarez is over the proverbial hump. He can recall from personal experience that bad habits -- in life and baseball -- can appear faster than it took them to vanish.
"I can remember my dad sitting me down at the age of 20-something and having 'This is the last one of these I'm going to have with you [conversations],' " Hurdle said. "And by gosh, if I wasn't 30, we had to have another one."
But Hurdle is hopeful.
"You want to believe in things, you trust things," he said. "Yes, I do believe he's onto some really good things."
The Pirates have been remarkably efficient in closing out games, entering this weekend having lost just one contest when leading after seven innings.
It should come as no surprise, then, that they are among the major leagues' best teams when pitching with a lead.
The Pirates entered this weekend with a 2.97 team ERA when leading, the second best mark in the majors. Only the Atlanta Braves (2.90) were better.
"I wasn't aware that the numbers were that spiked," Hurdle said. "I felt we were pretty good at it. There are a lot of numbers out there."
But this one is significant because it helps explain why the Pirates have been so successful. The team entered the weekend 23rd in run production but with a plus-16 run differential. The only winning team with a worse run differential was the Baltimore Orioles (--17).
The team is accustomed to navigating through games with narrow leads, and the pitching staff does a good job of making sure those opportunities are not squandered.
When the Pirates are trailing, the staff ERA balloons to 4.05, though still good enough for the ninth best mark in the major leagues. When the game is tied, the Pirates' ERA is 4.75. Only two teams perform worse.
Hurdle said the Pirates might be do so well at preserving leads because he usually turns to his strongest relievers in those situations.
Rookie Jared Hughes leads the relievers with a 1.23 ERA when pitching with a lead. Setup man Jason Grilli has a 1.83 ERA, and closer Joel Hanrahan has a 2.38 ERA.
Jeff Karstens is the most efficient starter, posting a 1.46 ERA when the Pirates lead.
But Grilli said the Pirates have a strong bond that helps them clinch games.
"It's a way to push each other," he said. "I don't want to say we're in competition with one another, but you want to be as good as the next guy. You don't want to be the odd man left out. In order to win, you've got to have that part of the chemistry mix."
Said Hurdle: "That's the mentality you're looking for -- that pack mentality."
The Pirates and Houston Astros displayed the increased opportunities and nuances of September baseball during the eighth inning Tuesday night.
With two outs, an Astros run already across and a man on second, Houston pinch-hit left-handed hitter Fernando Martinez for Justin Maxwell against Chris Resop. Hurdle countered with lefty Watson. The Astros promptly parried back with righty Chris Snyder.
The September roster expansions allow for that type of mixing and matching. The Pirates carried 31 players on the active roster into their weekend series against the Chicago Cubs.
"You know there's a Plan B and a Plan C," Hurdle said. "I knew very well that they could just flip a hitter and just burn a left-hander, and they did."
Fortunately for Hurdle, Watson allows opposing righties to hit .235, not much better than the .211 lefties hit off him. Righty Jason Grilli holds lefties to a .146 average and righties .229. Resop's numbers are also comparable against lefties as well as righties.
"I don't think we can get blown up one way or the other where it's an extreme leverage for the other team," Hurdle said.
When considering a move in light of the expanded rosters, Hurdle said he focuses on one side of the equation.
"When it gets to this point in the season, I base the decisions upon doing the things that are best for our club," he said.
Looking ahead: Six on the road
The Pirates will begin a six-game road trip Monday, continuing a stretch of 28 consecutive games against National League Central opponents.
First, they take on the division-leading Cincinnati Reds in a three-game series. When the Pirates last traveled to Cincinnati, they were within striking distance of the Reds for the division lead. Since then, Cincinnati has run away with the NL Central.
After an off day, the Pirates then head to Chicago to begin a four-game series against the Cubs.
The Reds will be favored in the first series. The Pirates will be favored against the rebuilding Cubs.