Pirates offense will get better, thanks to Pedro Alvarez

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This is just a guess, but the Pirates will score more than one run in a game this season, perhaps as soon as Wednesday night when they play the Chicago Cubs again. They won't hit a National League-low .228 in April or putrid .210 in May the way they did last season. Their lineup is too good. It's too strong.

"If I'm hitting in the sixth hole, I think our lineup stacks up pretty well," second baseman Neil Walker said.

This was after the Pirates managed just three hits in a 3-1 loss Monday to the Cubs at PNC Park. As opening days go, this was a real bummer. Cold, nasty weather and very little to cheer for the sellout crowd of 39,078. It should be against baseball rules for a team to look so flat in its home opener. The Pirates did what they always do against Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija -- nothing -- for eight innings. Their ninth-inning threat came up short after Walker and catcher Russell Martin flied out with runners on first and second.

"[Samardzija] has been a beast out there," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He had command of everything coming out of his hand."

It's a little soon for the Pirates to be tipping their collective hat to the opposing pitcher, but it's justified with Samardzija. He won both of his starts at PNC Park last season, allowing five hits and two earned runs with 14 strikeouts in 17 innings. He won again Monday by allowing two hits and no runs with nine strikeouts in eight innings.

"He always seems to be pretty good here," Walker said. "But we'll get him."

I'm not so sure about Samardzija, but I won't be surprised if the Pirates light up Cubs starter Edwin Jackson Wednesday night or left-hander Travis Wood Thursday afternoon. They have to score at least two runs, right?

Walker had the first hit off Samardzija leading off the second inning, a sharp single to left field. As long as his back holds up, Walker is going to have a big year, whether he hits sixth or trades places with right fielder Garrett Jones, who hit second Monday. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen had the second hit off Samardzija with two outs in the sixth, a line-drive double down the left-field line. We have seen enough of McCutchen to know he's the real deal. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez had the Pirates' other hit, a line-drive, run-scoring single in the ninth inning on a 1-2 pitch off Cubs alleged closer Carlos Marmol. More than any of the everyday players, Alvarez will determine the success of the lineup.

I believe Alvarez is going to have an outstanding season.

There were plenty of doubters in the PNC Park audience when Alvarez struck out in the first inning with runners on first and third with one out. Didn't he strike out an astonishing 180 times last season, more than anyone in the National League other than Washington's Danny Espinosa (189)? There were a few more doubters after Alvarez bounced out weakly to second base in the sixth inning with McCutchen on second with two outs. You almost could hear people asking: Why is Hurdle batting Alvarez in the cleanup spot? Alvarez hit .140 with one home run and nine RBIs batting fourth last season. He hit .323 with six home runs and 15 RBIs in the fifth hole and .268 with 19 home runs and 52 RBIs hitting sixth.

That's why Alvarez's at-bat in the ninth inning was the most important of the game for the Pirates. Yes, it was against Marmol, who is a really lame closer. Cubs manager Dale Sveum got Marmol out of the game after he walked first baseman Gaby Sanchez after Alvarez's hit. Left-hander James Russell came on to get Walker to line out to right field and right-hander Kyuji Fujikawa was brought in to get Martin to pop out to center. Good for Sveum not living and dying with a bad closer. The Cubs would have lost if he had stuck with Marmol.

Still, you shouldn't minimize the significance of Alvarez's hit. It didn't win the game Monday, but it might help win the next one or the one after that.

"Absolutely. Nothing breeds confidence like success," Hurdle said.

"One of the challenges we have as a club is we can't let results sway our confidence. It's not one game or one week. You have to get to a point when you're a pro that you're confident no matter what. But there's no question having that single in the ninth is good to have in his back pocket."

Hurdle stressed Alvarez is his cleanup hitter until Alvarez shows him he can't get it done.

"I believe he's ready for it. There might be a safer way to play things, but I believe, in our situation, you have to take some chances. The potential is there for great reward."

Alvarez hit 30 home runs and had 85 RBIs last season despite a .244 batting average and those 180 strikeouts. There's no reason to think he can't hit 35 or 40 home runs with 100 RBIs this season if he cuts down his strikeouts even a little.

"The potential he has is ridiculous," Walker said.

All of the Pirates enjoyed seeing Alvarez's hit off Marmol because it gave the team a chance to win. But Walker said Alvarez's confidence is strong enough that Alvarez could have endured an 0-for-4 day and leaving runners in scoring position in three at-bats.

"From day one of spring training, he's looked more comfortable with his approach at the plate and his pitch selection," Walker said. "I think that will continue. I know it will continue. From talking to him, I know he's in a much better place than in the past."

So is the Pirates offense.

The lousy results against Samardzija aside.

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Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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