Nate McLouth, an All-Star, a Gold Glove winner and one of the Pirates' most popular players upon being being traded last summer, will make his initial return tonight as a member of the Atlanta Braves.
A contributing member, at long last.
"I'm getting there," McLouth said Thursday by phone after his two-run single was part of Atlanta's astounding seven-run rally in the ninth inning to upend the visiting Cincinnati Reds, 10-9. "I'm finally getting some rhythm, and I'm not swinging like a girl anymore."
His season average is a still-dismal .208, but he went 9 for 24 on the seven-game homestand the Braves just completed, including a home run, four doubles and six RBIs. In the wild victory Thursday, he stepped to the plate with bases loaded and the Braves trailing, 9-3, and lined a two-run single. Brooks Conrad's walkoff grand slam ended it.
"Unbelievable," McLouth called it.
The early struggles are hard to explain, given McLouth's ultra-mechanical and compact swing, but he had a similar stretch with the Pirates two years ago and emerged unscathed.
"I've been doing a lot of extra work in the cage and the video room, keeping in mind that it's a long season," he said.
And the problem was?
"I was swinging like a girl."
McLouth always spoke passionately of Pittsburgh and the Pirates' fan base while playing here, and that has not changed since his departure June 3 of last year.
"I'm very excited about coming back," he said. "I have countless good memories of my time there, and PNC Park is, in my opinion, still the best ballpark in America."
McLouth was traded for starter Charlie Morton, 1-7 with a 9.68 ERA for the Pirates this season; Class AA outfielder Gorkys Hernandez, batting .204 with two extra-base hits in 137 at-bats; and Class A starter Jeff Locke, 4-2 with a 2.84 ERA.
The Pirates placed reliever Jack Taschner on the 15-day disabled list because of a tight left hamstring, but the team expects him to return as soon as he is eligible June 2.
Manager John Russell said Taschner had been trying to pitch through the tightness for the past two weeks, and that it came to a head in the 12-2 loss Monday in Philadelphia, a cold, damp night on which he gave up four runs in 1 2/3 innings.
"He was doing really well for us, and we need him to get all the way back," Russell said.
Taschner acknowledged that the injury had affected him.
"When it's your pivot leg, it's going to make a difference," he said. "I just didn't want to get in the way when we have a healthy pitcher ready to come back."
The corresponding move was the expected activation of another reliever, Brendan Donnelly. He pitched Thursday night for the first time since April 27 and had a perfect ninth inning.
• Aki Iwamura again was limited to pinch-hitting duties -- with a need for a pinch-runner if he reaches -- and Russell said of that, "We can't really go that route for much longer." Iwamura said his tight hamstring is "getting better." He did not make an appearance Thursday night.
• Outfielder Ryan Church is being hindered by that right wrist from a week ago, doubtless contributing to his 1-for-21 slump. But there has been no setback, and all concerned say it is just a matter of working through it. Russell said Church's bat speed is still good: "If it wasn't, we'd shut him down."
• Morton did extra work in the bullpen with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, but no major changes are in the offing.
• Pitcher Chris Jakubauskas, struck in the head by a line drive April 24, has had nine consecutive symptom-free days in his bout with concussions, and has resumed throwing long-toss. "I feel really good," he said.