New Pirates first baseman savors return to major leagues

Travis Ishikawa was the first Pirates base-runner to reach scoring position in the opener Monday. After his second single against the Chicago Cubs, a ground ball sent him to second.

Ishikawa’s opening-day start reflected a drastic change in his status since Dec. 18, when the Pirates signed the 30-year-old first baseman and invited him to camp as a non-roster player.

Ishikawa, joining his fifth organization and third of 2013, parlayed the invitation into a spot on the opening-day roster after appearing in seven major league games last year.

“Way better than last year, that’s for sure,” Ishikawa said.

“I feel like a little kid on Christmas right now. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”

The first few weeks of the season will give a better indication as to how manager Clint Hurdle intends to split playing time between the left-handed-hitting Ishikawa and the right-handed-hitting Gaby Sanchez at first.

Hurdle hinted at the possible split Monday, starting Ishikawa against the Cubs tough right-hander Jeff Samardzija. Another right-hander, Edwin Jackson, starts tonight for Chicago.

“I do believe there’s better matchup opportunities for Gaby than this particular one today,” Hurdle said before the opener.

Ishikawa had a nice spring, batting .290 with a .405 on-base percentage and three homers in 37 plate appearances, but spring statistics do not paint a full picture of a player.

In 20 major league plate appearances in 2013, Ishikawa had two hits. He had a .389 on-base percentage and nine home runs in 348 plate appearances at Class AAA.

Hurdle said he factored approach at the plate and quality of at-bats in spring training into his decision-making process.

“Based on the spring Travis has had this year, I do try and read something into spring training swings to get some momentum, to get some traction with the lineup,” Hurdle said.

Ishikawa could increase the Pirates production at first base against right-handed pitchers. His career on-base percentage against right-handers is .330, 49 points higher than against left-handers.

All but one of his 19 major league home runs came against right-handed pitchers. The fact that he has nearly eight times as many plate appearances against right-handers as he does against left-handers skews the stats, but the .409 slugging percentage against right-handers as a major leaguer is solid.

“I’m going to put forth competitive at-bats and, hopefully, make the pitcher work, so if I don’t get the hit, maybe the guy behind me will get one served up and he’ll do the damage,” Ishikawa said.

On paper, Ishikawa should provide a complement to Sanchez, who historically hits left-handers well.

Sanchez, 30, has a .300 career average and .399 on-base percentage against left-handers.

Sanchez served as the everyday first baseman for the Florida Marlins in 2010 and 2011 and has three times as many plate appearances facing right-handers as he does against left-handers. He has been successful before, hitting .257 with a .411 slugging percentage and 14 homers off right-handed pitchers in 2011.

Sanchez said this spring that seeing right-handed pitchers on a more consistent basis will help him regain a feel for the timing and release point, allowing him to become more comfortable and have more success.

“We’ll look at a bunch of different numbers, hard numbers, past history, analysis, projections and go from there,” Hurdle said.

Ishikawa said Hurdle had not informed him of a strict plan or breakdown. Both Ishikawa and Sanchez are solid defensive players at first base.

“It’s still up in the air,” he said.

“I guess we’ll just come in each day and, if we’re in the lineup, prepare for that day.

“If not, prepare to come in later on in the game if he needs us.”

Bill Brink: and on Twitter @BrinkPG.

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