Collier: Alvarez gets into the swing of things, too

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These Houston Astros haven't lost nine consecutive road games for nothing, so it was no surprise when that small oasis of competence they appeared to reach late in Wednesday's holiday matinee failed to withstand the force of nature that is your midsummer Pirates.

At one point earlier, I thought the umpires might stop the game so someone could make a short presentation when the Astros actually threw to the correct base for a change, but the Pirates were too busy cobbling together a three-run second inning that owed its very existence to Houston's ridiculous defense.

The Pirates utilized their own robust karma to overturn the third multi-run Houston lead of this series, but what they used to nail down their 18th win in the past 23 home games, their 10th in 12 decisions against left-handed starters at PNC Park, and a 14th victory in the past 18 games against divisional opponents, well, that was something that is suddenly a whole lot more tangible.

That would be the reliably ferocious swing of Pedro Alvarez, who again delivered the decisive stroke on the day the Pirates went into first place Independently.

"I feel better all the time," Alvarez shrugged after his second two-run single in as many games was the difference in a 6-4 outcome. "I feel like I can come through up there."

That might be because this Alvarez seems unrelated to the guy who was hitting .195 June 13, the guy people were trying to hound all the way back to Indianapolis, the guy who was threatening to reach 70 strikeouts before he collected even 35 hits.

"You're seeing a guy finding his rhythm and his confidence," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "He sees a breaking ball from a left-hander, and it's struck sharply back through the middle. That's a very pretty swing."

Part of its allure had something to do with the timing, which was almost precisely at the moment when the Astros might have been persuading themselves they could swipe the first victory of this 0-6 road trip. They'd trimmed the Pirates' lead to 4-3 and, when Hurdle's lineup began making some noise in the seventh, Houston manager Brad Mills thought he saw the way out of trouble after Casey McGehee made the inning's first out with Neil Walker on second and Andrew McCutchen on first.

Mills summoned lefty Fernando Abad to face lefties Garrett Jones and Alvarez, and that had the arithmetic basis of two mismatches. Abad's earned run average over his past 19 appearances was 1.80, and left-handed hitters were hitting less than .240 against him for his career.

But Jones' grounder to first was misplayed by Matt Downs to load the bases, and Abad's 1-1 pitch to Alvarez was practically dismembered as it screamed back in the direction whence it came.

"I know he can be tough on lefties," Alvarez said. "But I got a good pitch to hit, 1-1 breaking pitch."

Those two RBIs were Alvarez's 11th and 12th in his past four games. In his past 17 games, since June 16, he is hitting .400 (22 for 55) with 23 RBIs, the best such figure in baseball in that span.

When you add that kind of slugging to the brilliant season McCutchen is having, augment that with a general offensive resurgence to complement some of the best pitching in the game, you come up with a first half that reads 45 wins, 36 losses.

"I've always felt that hitting is contagious, good and bad," said Walker, who stretched his hitting streak to eight games and his average to .424 in this cadenza. "For a long time there, except for Andrew, it was bad, but it's totally different now. When you step into the box and have the freedom to look for a pitch early in the count, to look for a pitch to drive, if you make a quick out it's OK because you trust the people coming up after you to get something done.

"When you have trust up and down the lineup, it's extremely important."

What's important for the Pirates is that they not get enamored with the idea that they appear to be halfway to a 90-win season and instead remain geared to the game's exhaustive quotidian challenges. They were in first place last July as well and sailed off the edge of the earth. This could be different.

This could be real.

"We're built better," Hurdle said flatly. "We have more experience, more depth across the board. It think it's indicated by the number of one-run games we've won (19 against 14 losses), by our slow heartbeat in a lot of situations.

"Nobody's out there talkin' about playing .500 ball. That's not part of the discussion."



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