Spring training: For Monroe, homering is as easy as 1-2-3

Competing for outfield job, his three blasts double team-high total

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- It had been a mostly quiet spring training for the Pirates, with little news and few waves, until yesterday when Craig Monroe took care of that with one, two, three monster swings of the bat.

In order:

1. Fastball down the middle from Minnesota Twins starter Scott Baker in the second inning, high and easily over McKechnie Field's left-field fence.

2. Curveball from Baker in the next inning, high and onto the roof of the Boys & Girls club, this time way beyond left.

3. Fastball down from Kevin Mulvey in the sixth, about 10 feet up on the billboards above left-center. Two-run shot for a 6-1 Pirates lead, in what would become a 6-4 victory.

The wind was blowing out, but none of Monroe's efforts needed any help.

"Obviously, he swung the bat very well," manager John Russell said, typically understated. "He's starting to feel a lot more comfortable with his swing. He should get a little confidence with that game."

After that inning, with the crowd of 5,212 standing and cheering, Monroe was pulled for a substitute and ran along the front row of fans, exchanging high-fives and handshakes on his way to the clubhouse in right field.

The latter is common, but the performance is not: Monroe's home run total is six, most on the team and in the Grapefruit League. He has at least one in each of his past four games. He has 10 hits for his .333 average, and two of the other four are doubles. He has nine RBIs, most on the team, including the four yesterday.

And, to think, among Monroe's first thoughts when surrounded by reporters yesterday was about how he still has to make the team as a non-roster player on a minor league contract.

"I'm pushing hard, trying to make this team," he said. "I'm trying to open some eyes."

Any eyes he might not have opened yet?

"Hopefully, I make the team."

Be quite sure that Monroe, a 30-year-old three-time 20-home run man for Detroit trying to resuscitate his career after batting .202 for Minnesota in 2008 and getting released, is a solid bet. And he was almost as solid a bet even before this prodigious output" He is the only right-handed batter vying for an outfield spot apart from Steve Pearce, and the Pirates have made clear they prefer Pearce to continue developing in the minors.

"He's done a nice job," Russell said of Monroe. "We'll continue to evaluate as the spring goes. Obviously, this doesn't hurt."

Monroe laughed a bit when asked if he had found a groove.

"Some days, you can't explain it," he said. "But I can explain this: I've been working on a process to take good swings. And, the more confidence I get, the better that process goes."

And what, exactly, is that process?

"Honestly, I don't want to discuss it right now. I'd rather just keep doing what I'm doing and, at some point, I'm sure I'll be glad to talk about it. Just not now."

Part of it, Monroe allowed, is the elimination -- or at least the diminishing -- of a trademark leg kick he has used throughout his career. He took that action early in the winter with the help of the Texas Rangers' highly respected hitting coach, Rudy Jaramillo, and that received a hearty endorsement this spring from the Pirates' Don Long, who discouraged Xavier Nady's kick last spring just before who went on to a career year.

"That's been a constant struggle," Monroe said of the kick. "But it's part of the process. I look forward each day to getting into that cage and working with Donnie to get better."

"The thing we're seeing from Craig is consistency, and it's not just the kick," Long said. "His approach is good, his stride is good, and he's seeing the ball."

Monroe had three home runs in a game once professionally, that with the Class AA Tulsa Drillers in 2000.

The Pirates' spring record for home runs -- such records began getting kept in 1986 -- was eight, by Craig Wilson in 2005.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com.


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