On the Pirates: A look inside the jump in the team's offensive numbers in June.



On the Tropicana Field turf Tuesday night, the Pirates augmented an offense that has been among the league's best since May 1 by fielding their most complete lineup to date.

For the first time, Gregory Polanco and Neil Walker appeared on the same lineup card. It was Walker's appendectomy that had hastened Polanco's promotion to the major leagues 15 days before. Now, there they were, Polanco leading off and Walker batting cleanup.

Though the Pirates did little to improve their offense over the winter, their lineup has taken a step forward this season. They led the major leagues with a .347 on-base percentage in May and their .357 mark entering Friday's game against the New York Mets was 17 points higher than the next-closest team. Adding Ike Davis in April and Polanco in June lengthened the batting order, but the existing hitters have contributed too.

"I think the casting of characters we have in this lineup right now is very good, from my perspective, what I've seen in four years," manager Clint Hurdle said.

Patience at the plate -- the Pirates also lead the majors in walks in June -- is great in theory, but for the Pirates, it has translated into the stats that matter. Their 4.1 runs scored per game ranks sixth in the National League and they were 30-23 entering the weekend -- 15-9 in June -- since May 1. Here's how they did it.

THE OUTFIELD TRIO

Stack three guys who can hit for power, hit for average and steal bases atop any lineup and good things will happen. In the 10 games entering the weekend that Polanco, Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen have hit first, second and third, they went 46 for 134 (.343) with 24 runs scored. They have also stolen 34 bases.

"I'm blessed to have them at the top of the lineup," Hurdle said. "It's been really fun to watch."

In accordance with McCutchen's general trajectory, he rounded into form in June. McCutchen, who has a career .933 on-base plus slugging percentage in June, his highest in any month, had eight home runs, a .351 average and a .417 on-base percentage this month prior to the weekend.

"Andrew has matured into one of the elite players in the game," Hurdle said.

He sets the table. The work he does every day is significant."

Marte was hitting .230 June 8 following a 9-for-65 stretch over the previous 20 games that earned him some time out of the lineup. He then went on a 21-for-56 tear (.375) that included five doubles and a homer.

Polanco hit .338 and walked nine times, compared to 10 strikeouts, in his first 16 games. He was held hitless just twice.

"His bat-to-ball, aggressive selectivity within the strike zone is something you don't run across a lot in young players," Hurdle said. "He's had it really from beginning until now. He's showing signs of it right now."

PATIENCE

The Pirates see 3.86 pitches per plate appearance, tied for the second-highest mark in the NL. Whether that directly resulted from their emphasis on offensive efficiency and on-base percentage in spring training, or the focus on quality at-bats -- which include seeing at least eight pitches or seeing every pitch in the pitcher' arsenal -- is impossible to tell, but the Pirates rank third in the league in walks.

"I don't think we harp on that, but I think it's a byproduct of understanding the situation, understanding what the pitchers are trying to do, and not being afraid to get to two strikes," Walker said.

McCutchen is leading the way. He had an NL-best 53 walks entering the weekend. Russell Martin has walked in 14.6 percent of his plate appearances, which ranks sixth among players with at least 180 PAs. Ike Davis is third at 15.6 percent.

"I think that's something we take pride in is grinding out at-bats and making the pitcher work and trying to staying in the zone and understanding the thought process," Walker said.

THE ALVAREZ FACTOR

Hurdle referenced the way the Boston Red Sox of the 1970s constructed their lineup. In 1977, when the Red Sox won 97 games and ranked second in the American League with 5.34 runs per game, they often batted third baseman Butch Hobson eighth. Hobson hit 30 home runs that season.

Pedro Alvarez, who tied for the NL lead with 36 home runs last season, now finds himself hitting sixth or seventh. Alvarez was hitting .194 May 1 but had hit .291 with a .378 on-base percentage in June entering the weekend.

"You've got a guy like Pedro hitting as low as he is, I think that's a good sign for your team," Walker said.

Alvarez hit lower in the order even before Walker returned.

"It's not so much about the position. I think it speaks to the way you can best construct the lineup to move the chains," Hurdle said. "The guys that do swing and miss, you don't double them up, you try and keep them separated. That lineup's got every opportunity to bite you a bunch of different ways, whether it be speed, whether it be power, whether it be top, middle or bottom."

In a reversal from last season, the offense thus far has helped compensate for a starting rotation that struggled at times with ineffectiveness and injury, and a bullpen that had blown a major league-high 14 saves entering the weekend. At 40-39 before Friday's game, the Pirates were 21/2 games out of the wild card.

"It's very dynamic, if you ask me," Walker said of the offense. "There's so many different ways we can beat you."

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.


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