A new pinch-hitting program has aided the Pirates off the bench this season.
The Pirates entered their weekend series in St. Louis with a National League-leading 12 pinch hits -- and 10 RBIs -- off the bench.
The club had a discussion on how to find a way to prepare players as best they could for game specific situations, based around what each player does best.
"We talked about putting together a pinch-hit package. Putting something down on paper, committing to something based on where we were in the game," manager Clint Hurdle said. "So we gave the players a little road map. Here's what we want out of you this pinch-hit at-bat, here's what the game's asking you to do, rather than take for granted that they know or let them freestyle. We're just trying to help them shape up and focus."
The plan is a half-situation specific, and half specific to the strength of each individual player.
Some players may be tasked with moving a runner over or hitting a sacrifice fly. Others can swing away.
"It's a hybrid. And it's also a different prep routine we're going through in the cage," Hurdle said. "We're racking up velocity. Just cooking things different."
It also includes a daily session in the batting cage with higher velocity on the pitching machine to simulate facing a fresh late-inning reliever who is likely throwing hard.
"Most teams have a machine. We've taken this machine and kind of slapped it to make it mad and angry, tried to add more adrenaline, more confrontation to the practice session," Hurdle said.
Pinch-hitting is, of course, one of the game's most difficult tasks.
Players enter the game, cold, and stare down a pitcher they haven't faced all night, in what is likely a big situation.
"It's one of the hardest things to do in this game, is come off the bench and not have a feel for the game, [to] walk in there and get a big hit," shortstop Clint Barmes said. "There's definitely different roles for each guy for whoever is on the bench that day. More than likely I may be a guy who comes up and moves a runner over."
The Pirates have gotten a key pinch-hit home run from Josh Harrison. It broke a seventh-inning tie against the Brewers April 17 in what became an 11-2 rout.
That can be contagious, Barmes said.
"We get a few guys swinging the bat well and it can go from one guy to the next," Barmes said. "That's how it all starts."
Hurdle stopped short of crediting the pinch-hitting program for the success in that area, but said it certainly hasn't hurt.
"We have been really, really sharp. Spot-on lately," he said. "Good at-bats, productive at-bats, whether they've been pinch hit or in-game switches. Good to see."
Edinson Volquez: Club ERA leader
Edinson Volquez (1-1) entered the weekend with the best ERA on the starting pitching staff at 1.93.
Struggles with his fastball command have generally vanished since spring training, but he's been most effective playing a deceptive changeup off that fastball.
That's according to catcher Russell Martin, who caught Volquez several times in spring training and has watched his evolution this spring closely.
"When he works a fastball down, his changeup works really well off of that," Martin said. "That fastball angle is down so he can throw that same pitch but it'd be a changeup and to the hitter it looks like a fastball coming in. At the last second, it comes in below the zone. You get pitches that are below the zone that way. That's really what makes him great."
Martin said Volquez's erratic numbers in spring training certainly had to do with fastball command, but some of those hits were wind aided as well.
"The more I catch him the more I realize he's got a great feel out there," Martin said. "He's got a great feel for all of his pitches. He can locate his changeup on both sides of the plate. He has good movement on his fastball. He works in and out, up and down and he's got a breaking ball people don't really talk about. But he's got a nice breaking ball."
When Volquez has made mistakes, he's been ahead in the count, and that's a good sign, said Martin. "The positive there is he's being aggressive, staying ahead on the hitters. They're not getting any quality swings off him. They don't seem to time him up well because he does such a good job."
The Pirates get their first break from the NL Central Division and first taste of interleague play with games against the Baltimore Orioles Tuesday and Wednesday at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The Orioles have been among the top teams in the AL East early this season and started a five-game homestand Friday coming off two wins on the road at Toronto.