BRADENTON, Fla. -- Clint Barmes wanted to make a good first impression in Pittsburgh in 2012.
But in trying to do so, Barmes struggled more than he had in his entire career and instead earned criticism from Pirates fans. It was a similar scenario to the one Barmes faced in 2011 in Houston after an offseason trade. He made adjustments he believed would improve his game, only to have a slow start to the season.
"I wanted to start off on the right foot and play well for the fans in Pittsburgh and for my teammates and the organization," Barmes said. "I did the same thing in Houston the year before. It was tough to control those emotions, to try to slow it down and try not to do too much. That's kind of been a battle with me for a long time, really."
Barmes hit .149 in April, .189 in May and finished the first half of the season batting .202 -- numbers that would earn most players a demotion to the minor leagues or, worse yet, a trip to waivers. But Barmes represented a significant investment by the Pirates after signing a two-year, $10.5 million deal before the 2012 season.
So the Pirates had to be patient as Barmes tried to find his groove.
He turned to teammates for advice last year. He sought counsel from his wife, as he has since they met in 2005. He took solace in his children, who never allowed him to dwell on his struggles.
"I know that's not who I am," Barmes said.
He tinkered with the mechanics of his swing before the past two seasons, trying to use his legs more in an effort to drive the ball to all parts of the field. But it never felt comfortable for Barmes, and he struggled as a result.
"Starting spring training with something completely new and not exactly trusting it 100 percent and knowing if it's going to work is probably a big part of my struggles," Barmes said. "So when the season came, if I didn't start off well -- which I didn't either year -- I ditched that approach and tried to go back to what I've always done."
That's not an ideal situation, either, considering Barmes spent the entire offseason and a good chunk of the beginning of the regular season working on a swing with different mechanics. It took time, but he eventually rebounded to finish 2012 with a bit of momentum. He hit .271 in August and .267 in September and October to finish the season with a .229 batting average.
He hopes to build off that finish and is keeping things simple to do so. He has embraced a simple swing, one he said has proven the most successful throughout his career. He abandoned it in previous years because he believed he could do better and be more consistent.
The key for Barmes this spring is to lead his swing with his hands and let the rest of his body follow. Additionally, hitting coach Jay Bell said, Barmes is doing a better job of controlling the strike zone.
"There's not one hitter, including Babe Ruth, that could cover the entire strike zone," Bell said.
Instead, they have hot zones. And Bell said Barmes has done a better job this spring of sticking to his.
"He's had better at-bats," Bell said. "He's put himself in a better position to attack the baseball. And because he's been zone-specific, his pitch recognition has been great."
For the first time in three years, Barmes is heading into the season with confidence and comfort in his swing. And as a result, he expects to bounce back.
"This is the first time for me not worrying about spending all this time in the offseason trying to try something different with my approach, with my swing and all that," Barmes said. "I expect a lot of big things this year, as a team and individually."
Finally, a victory
The Pirates snapped an almost week-long skid by beating the Houston Astros, 8-6, Sunday at McKechnie Field.
Catcher Tony Sanchez went 2 for 2 with a triple, two RBIs and two runs, and he threw out a baserunner in his best game of spring training. Outfielder Jose Tabata also drove in two runs, finishing 1 for 3 with a run.
Starting pitcher Kyle McPherson had a good outing go sour and allowed four earned runs on two hits in 22/3 innings.
McPherson was strong through the first two innings, allowing only one baserunner. But he allowed two walks and two hits before being pulled.
"Those balls could probably go either way," he said of his control issues. "But unfortunately, they wound up as walks, and walks can cost you eventually. But all in all, it was a good outing."
Catcher Russell Martin, who originally was scheduled to start, did not play. He threw from about a 60-foot distance -- the first time he has thrown since Monday when he first experienced soreness in his shoulder.
Jeff Samardzija was named the Chicago Cubs' opening-day starter, the team announced. The Pirates open the season against the Cubs April 1 at PNC Park. Matt Garza, the Cubs' best pitcher, will start the season on the disabled list. ... Catcher Ali Solis, a non-roster spring training invitee, will not play for Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic because he is experiencing back spasms.
Michael Sanserino: email@example.com, 412-263-1722; Twitter: @msanserino.