Patience pays off for McLouth

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MIAMI -- As Nate McLouth slowly climbed his way through the Pirates' minor-league system, there were three schools of thought among informed baseball people on his future:

1. He might make a good fourth outfielder.

2. He might make a good fifth outfielder.

3. He might make a nice career minor-leaguer.

Few gave McLouth, a 25th-round draft choice in 2000, a chance to have much of a major-league career, and virtually no one saw him as a player capable of starting -- even for the Pirates.

But McLouth rejected such thinking. Determination is one of his strengths. He kept advancing his career until this point, where he's a regular and, thus far, a competent one.

The Pirates have been fooled so often in the recent past by center fielders -- Adrian Brown, Tike Redman, Chris Duffy -- that it would be silly to proclaim McLouth as being here to stay. But he presents an impressive case for himself.

He was in the middle of much of what transpired yesterday at Dolphin Stadium, as the Pirates, playing with what might be called their junior varsity lineup, beat the Florida Marlins, 9-2, with Ian Snell pitching impressively to get the win.

Such was the lineup manager John Russell sent out that McLouth, who normally leads off, was hitting third. The Pirates had four of their highest-salaried players -- Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, Jason Bay and Adam LaRoche -- watching for a variety of reasons, and the junior varsity did itself proud, particularly Chris Gomez, who had three hits and a sacrifice fly.

McLouth's contributions were two doubles, a single, three runs scored and two RBIs. By the end of the day his batting average was .429, his on-base percentage .448.

Not bad for a guy who wasn't ever supposed to be in this situation.

It wasn't just that McLouth appeared to lack the necessary tools to become a successful major-leaguer, it was also the fact he was behind Duffy, a prospect with a much higher ceiling who projected as a Gold Glove-type defender. Such was Duffy's dominance that McLouth rarely had a chance to play center field in the minors. He was usually a corner outfielder, which really put him behind because he lacked the power expected from such players.

McLouth remained determined. He waited his turn, even when it was slow in coming, and made the most of his opportunities.

His career numbers wouldn't dazzle anyone. His lifetime batting average for 284 games and 708 at-bats coming into the season was .249. But so much of that was as a part-time player. Often, he'd be called upon to start against tough left-handers as the Pirates tried to protect Duffy, the more prized prospect.

He never really got a chance to play on a regular basis until last August, when Duffy was injured and the Pirates had few other options. Even then it was assumed he was temporarily holding the position until a better prospect, Andrew McCutchen or Nyjer Morgan, took over.

Given the opportunity, McLouth batted .270 in August and .315 in September. Of equal significance, he hit 10 home runs in 169 at-bats, the kind of pop that opened some eyes.

What McLouth brings to the lineup is impressive. He's not especially swift but is an expert base stealer. He was successful on 22 of 23 attempts last season -- the highest percentage of success in the National League -- and has been safe both times he has tried this season. Despite playing the corner outfield positions in the minors, he has proven himself to be a competent center fielder on the major-league level. He gets an excellent jump and runs crisp, direct routes to the ball.

McLouth wasn't even sure he'd be drafted out of high school and knew his path to the majors would be difficult.

"Absolutely, I knew it would be tough," he said. "It's tough for anybody to get here. The numbers back that up. I've worked hard and continue to work hard. It's paid off."

If he was bypassed along the way, he learned to live with it.

"The higher prospects are given more of an opportunity," he said, "and once they get to the big leagues, they're often put right into the everyday lineup.

"But I like the way I came up. I was a little under the radar."

If there is suspicion whether McLouth can actually continue to play at a high level, it's a result of the recent past. In 2000, Brown batted .315 in 308 at-bats, and the Pirates thought they had their center fielder of the future. They didn't. Nor did they when Redman hit .330 in 230 at-bats in 2003 or when Duffy batted .341 in 126 at-bats in 2005.

All failed to maintain anything close to that level of play.

The job belongs to McLouth, but Morgan, who started and played center yesterday while McLouth moved to left, is right behind him, and McCutchen will have his turn later this year or next.

McLouth won't look over his shoulder.

"I can't think about that," he said. "If you perform and do what you're supposed to do, that will make it impossible to take you out of the lineup."

Bob Smizik can be reached at .


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