LaRoche's aggressive attitude pays for Pirates

His two-run home run, Snell's strong start beat Brewers, 5-3

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Sure, it was a meatball.

Claudio Vargas, Milwaukee's starter, knew that even before he released his 3-0 pitch to Adam LaRoche.

Thing is, he felt fairly good about getting a cheap called strike out of it.

"I've seen LaRoche for a long time," Vargas would say later. "And I've never seen him swing at a 3-0 pitch."

Well, meet the new Adam LaRoche.

Nothing at all like the old.

He did swing at that flat 93-mph fastball, and he did so with great gusto in launching a two-run home run into PNC Park's center-field seats that snapped a sixth-inning tie and pushed the Pirates past the Brewers, 5-3, last night before 35,878.

"I was just in one of those zones where I was looking for one pitch," LaRoche said. "If I didn't get it, I was going to have a 3-1 count or take a walk."

If he did get it?

"I was going to kill it."

If LaRoche's confidence sounds strikingly different from those I'm-just-not-seeing-the-ball complaints through much of the season's first half, consider his recent surge: His average was at .211 after that nine-game road trip that ended last week, but he is 13 for 28 with three home runs and eight RBIs in the past seven games. And the average: .235.

So, is this really it?

Not just one of those spurts?

"Yeah, it is," LaRoche said with a small laugh. "And this is kind of what I expect out of myself all the time. Not the hits and the home runs, but the good at-bats. I know everybody was sick of hearing it, but I knew it was a matter of time before I got this back. I'm seeing the ball really well right now, and I'm going after it."

That is a difference, too.

Even LaRoche was sub-.100 in April, he still was drawing walks. But he might have been too patient, too passive in watching exceedingly hittable pitches zip right by.

Now, as Vargas found out, LaRoche is drawing those favorable counts to set up the pitch he wants to hit.

"When Adam was struggling, that ball could been missed or fouled back," Pirates manager Jim Tracy said of Vargas' 3-0 fastball. "Well, he centered that ball and hit it real hard."

LaRoche's hypothetical view about how this at-bat would have played out in April?

"After it was 3-0, I wouldn't have swung at anything."

LaRoche contributed in other ways: He made three fine defensive plays to support Ian Snell's strong eight-inning start. And he drew a seven-pitch walk -- yes, he still can do that -- just before Ryan Doumit's two-run home run in the fourth, high above the Clemente Wall, that tied the score at 3-3.

"He's a Gold Glove caliber first baseman. We all know that," Tracy said. "But the big thing is that, offensively, he's really starting to find himself."

And if that continues ...

"It can make a huge difference," center fielder Nate McLouth said. "It's hard to even find words for how much that could mean."

Maybe just as difficult as finding words to describe Snell's quantum leap in poise and performance since this time a year ago.

He was not sharp in giving up five hits in the first inning of this one, including Ryan Braun's three-run home run off a hanging slider. But, as he has all season, the once easily rattled Snell shrugged it off: He would blank Milwaukee's formidable lineup for the next seven innings and scatter four additional hits.

As if to add punctuation, Snell won a nine-pitch duel with slugger Prince Fielder, his final batter, by freezing him with a pinpoint sinker on the outside corner.

"He didn't think it was a strike," Snell said. "Well, it was right over the black."

The crowd stood and roared as Snell strode off the field.

"This is a sign of who this man is and what he's becoming," Tracy said of Snell. "Just a tremendous pitching performance by Ian."

And this from Braun on the other side: "Ian Snell is one of the best pitchers in the National League."

The Pirates had Snell's back from the outset, McLouth leading off the bottom of the first with a triple and scoring on Jose Bautista's sacrifice fly.

"We didn't need to get all three runs back right away, but getting one was nice," McLouth said.

Closer Matt Capps had a slight scare in the ninth, giving up Johnny Estrada's opening double and, after two outs, seeing Rickie Weeks fly out to the warning track in center. But he got his eighth save in as many chances.

And the Pirates, winners of two of three so far from the first-place Brewers and six of nine, today can take their first series from an opponent with a winning record.

"Things are feeling pretty good in here," LaRoche said of the Pirates' clubhouse. "It feels a lot more fun to come to work, I think, for a lot of the guys."

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette photos
Freddy Sanchez congratulates Adam LaRoche after hitting a two-run home run in the sixth inning yesterday at PNC Park.
Click photo for larger image.

More Coverage:

Errors fail to chill Walker's hot bat

Pirates Notebook: LaRoche asks fans to lay off Bay

Gene Collier: A Snelluva performance lifts Pirates


Today

Game: Pirates (LHP Tom Gorzelanny 8-4, 3.05) vs. Milwaukee Brewers (RHP Ben Sheets 10-3, 3.19), 12:35 p.m., PNC Park.

Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).

Key matchup: Xavier Nady is 5 for 10 with two home runs and seven RBIs vs. Sheets.

Of note: Opposing cleanup hitters are batting .163 ... 8 for 49 -- with no home runs against Gorzelanny this season.


Ian Snell delivers a pitch to Brewers starter Claudio Vargas yesterday at PNC Park. Snell gave up three runs on nine hits through eight innings.
Click photo for larger image.Third baseman Jose Bautista gets the call against the Brewers' Gabe Gross by third base umpire Mike Everitt yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.

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


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