Through a little more than one month this season, the Pirates have gotten some steady offensive production at first base. The output has been consistent even though the players manning the position change on a nightly basis. The platoon of Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez has been successful thus far, giving the Pirates a boost in the middle of the batting order.
Entering this weekend series against the New York Mets, the Pirates were hitting .280 from the first base position. That's almost 40 points higher than the team average and trails only left field (.323, Starling Marte) and center field (.281, Andrew McCutchen) in batting average by position.
"I think we're both making the most of what we've got here, getting at-bats and helping the team win," Jones said.
Jones entered the weekend with four home runs and a .287 batting average. But when he is in, he splits his time between first base and right field. As a first baseman, Jones is hitting .303 with an .835 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) in 19 games.
Jones had 103 at-bats on the season, all but three coming against right-handed pitchers.
"Whenever we can be in there and help the team win, that's what we try to do," Sanchez said. "It's nothing about comfort level. It's nothing about anything like that. It's about knowing our role and when we get in there, doing the best we can."
Sanchez, who joined the Pirates at the trade deadline last season, is hitting .250 with four home runs. In 18 games at first base, he is hitting .260 with a .935 OPS.
"He's been swinging the bat well against lefties," Jones said. "And he's swinging the bat well against righties, when he gets a chance. He's been outstanding on defense out there. When I'm out there, I try to be as sharp and as flawless as I can on defense as well."
Against left-handed pitchers, Sanchez is hitting .357 with a 1.223 OPS this season.
"There's no competition at all when it comes to us," Sanchez said. "We talk a lot. We're friends. There's no competition at all between us. We just go out there and play whenever we're called upon."
New team, new approach ? ? ?
New pitcher Francisco Liriano hopes his command will improve this season. He believes an offseason mechanical adjustment could do the trick.
Liriano, 29, adjusted his pitching motion so that his arm slot is more overhanded, almost perpendicular to the ground. It is a change he started working on last summer in preparation for winter ball.
He struggled to locate his fastball last season, and his walks-per-nine-innings ratio was 5.0 in 2011 and 2012, well above the league average.
"I'm trying to go over my head now," he said. "I think that's helped me a lot to stay back and locate my pitches a lot better. ... I'm just trying to stay back and try not to overthrow."
In five rehab appearances, Liriano has seen results. His walks per nine innings ratio was 1.7 while his strikeout rate remained high. Both are signs that he has control of his pitches without losing his effectiveness.
He was especially encouraged by the development of his fastball the past month, which effectively served as his spring training after he sustained a fracture to the humerus bone in his right, non-throwing arm.
"I'm pretty pleased with my fastball command -- really every pitch, but especially my fastball," he said. "I've been locating my fastball inside and out much better than I was last year."
But transitioning from minor-league hitters to major-league hitters could bring about a new series of challenges for the one-time All-Star.
One thing he won't have to worry about is finding his comfort level with his new throwing motion. After 212/3 innings in his rehabilitation outings -- and countless pitches thrown in side sessions between those -- Liriano said he does not have to give much thought to his mechanics.
"It's more natural at this point," he said. "It's getting a lot better. I'm getting used to it."
The hits don't keep on coming ?
The first of Duke Welker's three hits allowed this season while with Class AAA Indianapolis came on April 9. Toledo designated hitter John Lindsey singled to left.
Welker said he doesn't remember the hits, even though there were so few of them.
"I know the last one was up the middle," he said.
The second one came a week later, also against Toledo. Jordan Lennerton singled in the eighth inning.
"I was trusting my stuff, throwing it over the plate and putting it in play," Welker said.
The final hit came on his last outing in the minors, May 5. Josh Fields of Lehigh Valley singled to center.
Welker's three hits allowed came in 16 innings and accompanied 20 strikeouts and one unearned run. He is now part of the transient Pirates bullpen.
"I just learn from them daily, what they do, what they talk about, how they go about their business," Welker said.
"It's an awesome group of guys to learn from. I was just talking to Jason [Grilli] a second ago about the game, picking up other stuff you don't learn from other guys."
Welker, 27, relies on a sinker-slider mix, and it has worked well. Last season at Indianapolis he struck out 30 batters in 312/3 innings and had a 2.27 ERA.
"I just know my role is to put the team in a good situation to win," Welker said. "It doesn't need to change here. That's what I'm here to do."