Gene Collier: Alvarez gives Big Bang Theory a new slant



CHICAGO -- In a baseball game layered like a John Grisham novel and stretched across a cloudy Thursday toward a breathless bottom of the ninth, the Pirates ultimately won the simple, old-fashioned way.

With a bang.

A big bang.

Nothing uncomplicates the game's often labyrinthian plots like the Big Bang Theory, the physics-based certainty that there is no known defense for the ball that comes off Pedro Alvarez's bat with optimal force and menacing trajectory.

"I think I'm getting there," Alvarez said after his third homer in the past two games, a three-run, 400-foot rocket to dead center that destroyed Chicago's two-run lead with two out in the seventh. "I'm working to get there every day and I'm pleased with the progress I've made."

When you're on pace to hit 90 homers, you have a right to be pleased, never mind we're only 1/18th of the way through a season with instant promise. These Pirates, in fact, have won their first three series for only the fourth time in the past 50 years (1992, 1976, 1966).

"We all live for that moment," said Travis Snider, whose two-run shot earlier in the inning got the Pirates off the deck. "It's what made us a great team over the course of the last year and a half. We play for each other. Regardless of the situation, we all expect ourselves to step up."

The Cubs actually expected Alvarez to stand down when manager Rick Renteria summoned left-hander James Russell from the bullpen after Brian Schlitter walked Andrew McCutchen to put a second runner on base in that seventh.

Alvarez was 1 for 7 against left-handers in the young season and a .199 struggler for his career, and sometimes the way to uncomplicate that part of the game is to avoid trying to out-think the pitcher through a deep count.

"We have had that discussion and talked about different ways to attack the left-hander, being ready to hit the first pitch," said manager Clint Hurdle, who, thanks in part to that conversation, will take a 6-3 club into Milwaukee for a weekend series. "More often, it was about hitting the fastball on the first pitch because you don't want to get in a position to have to hit the breaking ball.

"I do believe when hitters are locked into hitting that fastball the other way, which he's worked hard on doing, that breaking ball that does hang, you're in position to hit it. Your hands are in a good place and your body's ready to work, and I think that's what you saw today."

Alvarez sent Russell's sorry hanger soaring into the overcast, but the shot itself was no more impressive than his ninth-inning homer the night before, which trolley-wired out of here in about four seconds, and to the very same Wrigley location. So, it's not just about what you saw Thursday, it's what you're seeing from Alvarez all the way back to the fall of 2013, when he became the first player to hit safely in his first six postseason games.

"Early in the season last year, he was a different hitter," Snider said of Alvarez. "He's come into his own. He's reached a total level of comfort up there. His batting average (.229) really doesn't tell the whole story of how many balls he's hit on the screws.

"For us, it's fun to sit back and watch him make pitchers scared."

That Alvarez has made himself into a reliable, strong-armed defender at third despite limited range and made himself into an aggressively intelligent baserunner at the same time speaks to a level of professionalism his detractors often doubt because of his mountainous strikeout totals.

But this is the first guy to drive in 100 runs around here in nearly a decade, and it's pretty evident he's only getting better.

"Just trying to compete and trying to be ready to hit from pitch No. 1," Alvarez shrugged. "I'm just tryin' to hit the ball wherever it's pitched. Just tryin' to keep it as simple as possible. Any time you can come back, especially down so many runs, it's a huge plus for the morale and for the team."

Historically, of course, Wrigley Field simply incubates this kind of baseball, the kind where the Pirates blew a four-run lead and a two-run lead Tuesday, the Cubs nearly blew a six-run lead Wednesday, then went almost predictably about blowing a four-run lead Thursday.

The thing that might have prevented it was to get out Alvarez in the spot where he was plainly most dangerous, and that's becoming a very difficult thing to do.

"Yeah, there's been quality at-bats, sharp at-bats, and now the barrel's playing and he's elevating some balls and riding balls out of the ballpark," said Hurdle, who then paused just a bit and smiled just a little. "This is the best place he's been in since I've been here."

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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