Baseball fun again for Pedro Alvarez


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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Pedro Alvarez is having fun again. And that could be a good thing for the Pirates.

The second overall draft pick in 2008 entered the major leagues in 2010 with mounds of pressure. A left-handed power hitter in PNC Park could be a difference-maker for the franchise. The fans knew it. The front office knew it. And Alvarez knew it.

Alvarez consistently spoke of how he is his own biggest critic and that nobody places more pressure on him than himself.

This spring, the smiles are more visible.

'You start to learn how to put things in perspective," Alvarez said. "I think when you start doing that -- not that the game becomes easier -- you worry about the things you need to worry about. The things that you don't need to worry about, those added pressures, added stress, that kind of goes away."

He has had help from a lot of different places in putting baseball's successes and struggles in perspective.

"My teammates, my coaching staff, my parents, my wife, my dog," Alvarez said.

Yes, even his shin tzu-Maltese terrier mix.

Many veterans credit their ability to leave baseball's problems at the ballpark for the longevity of their careers. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle often speaks of his desire for players to have fun and realize they are playing a game. That's not just so they're happier people -- often, the less pressure players feel, the better they play.

Trying too hard can often create more problems, which compounds the ones that already existed.

Alvarez was not immune to that pressure. His success came in spurts last season, and he struggled hitting in the fourth spot in the lineup.

He hit .140 with one home run in 86 at-bats as the cleanup hitter in 2012, compared to 30 home runs and a .244 overall average. He had his most success as the fifth hitter, where he hit .323 with six homers in 96 at-bats. Most often, he batted sixth, where he hit .268 with 19 homers in 284 at-bats.

Eventually, Alvarez will be a cleanup hitter. The Pirates don't yet believe he is ready for that role, and he says he is OK with that.

"If I have to hit first, ninth, eighth, whatever it is, at the end of the day, my goal is the same," he said. "I just want to get an opportunity to make the lineup. Anywhere in the lineup, I still have to do my job."

But Hurdle said there is a lot of pride that comes with that No. 4 spot in the lineup, where Alvarez has hit most of the spring.

"He'll tell you he doesn't care where he hits -- as long as he's in the lineup, he's good," Hurdle said. "But there's some ownership to the cleanup hitter."

Hurdle is not yet ready to commit to Alvarez in that spot. He has three spots written in pen on his lineup sheet -- left fielder Starling Marte at the top, center fielder Andrew McCutchen No. 3 and his pitcher ninth.

"I do think that there's going to be a day when Pedro's going arrive and can hit cleanup for us," Hurdle said. "That gives us a chance for us to be the best offensive team we can be."

Alvarez has not done much this spring to earn the spot, either. He is hitting .186 with one home run.

But Hurdle has been impressed with his recent play, as well as his work on controlling the strike zone. He had 180 strikeouts in 2012 -- the second most of any National League player -- and struck out in 34.3 percent of his at-bats. This spring, he has struck out 10 times in 43 at bats, or 23.3 percent.

In Alvarez's past 18 at-bats, he has six hits and his only home run of the spring.

He spent part of his offseason training at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., with teammates Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker. It was his first year training at IMG, which McCutchen credited last year for helping him get in great shape for an MVP-caliber season.

Alvarez took big steps forward as a player in 2012, but he still has work to do to reach his full potential as a consistently dangerous power hitter. He hopes to build on the confidence carried into the offseason.

Spring training report

Game: Rays 6, Pirates 2

Starter: Kyle McPherson, 5 innings, 7 hits, 5 runs, 1 walk, 2 strikeouts, 3 home runs.

Top batter: Russell Martin 2 for 5, one RBI, one strikeout.

Of note: Starter James McDonald threw 98 pitches in 41/3 innings in Class AAA game Monday against the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla.

News of the day: For four innings, Kyle McPherson pitched like a player who was ready to enter a major league starting rotation. Then, the fifth inning happened, and McPherson crumbled. With the team's decision on the starting rotation near, McPherson likely will earn mixed reviews from the front office for his outing Monday night at Charlotte Sports Park. He was efficient and effective early, throwing first-pitch strikes to the first 10 batters he faced. Then, his command waned. He threw first-pitch balls to six of the next seven batters he faced and was ultimately undone by the home run. McPherson allowed four earned runs in a four-hit, one-walk fifth inning. "It just kind of snowballed," he said. "And at this level, you can't fall behind. And you can't really give them too much to hit because they'll make you pay." McPherson finishes his spring with an 8.46 ERA. "It's been such a roller coaster of a spring," he said. "It can feel like you have the best stuff out there and you look up there and you have a lot of runs on the board." He did not get much defensive support as the Pirates committed two errors while he was on the mound and missed two makeable plays in the four-run fifth that could have limited the damage. Ben Zobrist homered off McPherson on a ball that glanced off Jose Tabata's glove at the wall. And Neil Walker couldn't corral a ground ball as he dived to his left. Had he made the play, it would have been the third out of the inning. Instead, Evan Longoria followed with the second two-run blast in the fifth.

Buried treasure: The Pirates will hold a public workout from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday at PNC Park, the team announced Monday. The event -- weather permitting -- is free of charge. Fans can enter at the Legacy Square Gates off General Robinson Street.

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Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published March 26, 2013 4:00 AM


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