During the Pirates' day off Monday, Ernesto Frieri went to the mall. He marveled at the lack of traffic, a drastic change from his previous home in Anaheim, Calif. He likes the summer weather in Pittsburgh -- hot and humid, like his native Colombia.
"I just love it," Frieri said. "I like it over here."
The Pirates like him, too, which is why they acquired him in a reliever-for-reliever challenge trade, sending Jason Grilli to the Los Angeles Angels in return. After two strong seasons closing for the Angels, Frieri has regressed this year, becoming more hittable and allowing more home runs. Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas are already hard at work to help Frieri recover his form.
"They know what I can do when I'm the Ernie that everybody knows," he said. "That's why I came here. I came here to help this ballclub [and] to have fun, too."
The right-handed Frieri debuted in 2009 with the San Diego Padres at age 24, and his ability to miss bats became evident the next two seasons when he struck out 117 batters in 942/3 innings. It wasn't until after the Padres traded him to the Angels in May 2012 for Alexi Amarista and Donn Roach that he received his first chance to be a closer. He saved 23 games and struck out 80 in 541/3 innings. He recorded 37 saves the following year.
"I think I'm a power pitcher," Frieri said. "I have a really good fastball. The hitters, they don't feel comfortable seeing my fastball."
Frieri's fastball has averaged 94 mph or higher in each of the past three seasons.
Something changed this year. Frieri allowed 22 earned runs in 31 innings with the Angels after giving up 29 all last season and 17 the season before. His walk rate declined, but his hits allowed have increased by 3.9 per nine innings and his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio almost doubled. Seeing a chance to grab Grilli, another formerly effective closer who was struggling this season, the Angels parted with Frieri.
"You're never expecting a trade," said Frieri, who was surprised. "Not just the fact that I was traded here, just the fact that I was getting traded."
Frieri's batting average on balls in play this season was .367 entering the weekend, well above the league average of .300 or so and his career average of .283, but he did not put much stock in that.
"I don't believe in bad luck," he said. "This is baseball, man. I do believe that there are good times and bad times. I do believe in that."
In his first three outings as a Pirate, Frieri allowed five runs -- all of which came in one-third of an inning Thursday -- and eight hits in 21/3 innings. Manager Clint Hurdle said he believed the coaching staff could help Frieri improve.
"This game challenges you," Hurdle said. "And then you've got to find ways to recreate or rekindle or reignite, and I think that's where he is right now. Stay positive with him, keep finding opportunities, give him the ball and pitch."
In addition to acquiring a hard thrower with late-inning experience, the Pirates received a player they have contractual control over through the 2016 season. Frieri, who turns 29 in two weeks, was eligible for arbitration for the first time before this season and has a $3.8 million salary.
Now with his third organization, Frieri brings a mature thought process to his attempt to move on from his struggles..
"If you start thinking too much about baseball ... you're going to go crazy," he said. "You've just got to go out there, do your best and have fun. That's why this game hasn't gotten me frustrated."
That can‘t be all you’ve got
Pedro Alvarez hit .299 with a .396 on-base percentage and .483 slugging percentage in June. After a .319 OBP in May and a .280 mark in April, that represents drastic improvement. Those that watch him every day, though, aren't impressed yet.
"He can do better," center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "That's what's impressive. You ask him. He knows he can do better."
"We need more consistency," Hurdle said. "I'm not impressed. He's done more than this.
"Statistically some areas were better, but we can cherry-pick numbers and get good [performance] and get bad [performance]. Looking at the whole context of it, the consistency's what he's looking for. We're looking for it with him. The ability to square up balls, drive in runs, score runs, to be a run-producer, a more consistent run-producer."
Alvarez entered 2014 after two consecutive seasons with at least 30 home runs and 22 doubles. His walk rate is up this season, his strikeout rate down, but the power relative to previous seasons has declined.
"We've seen him have periods that it's been phenomenal, when it's been fun to watch, when he's carried the club," Hurdle said. "He really hasn't run into one of those to date this season."
Looking ahead: St. Louis & Cincinnati
After facing the Chicago Cubs, Tampa Bay Rays, New York Mets, Arizona Diamondbacks and Philadelphia Phillies, all teams with sub-.500 records, the Pirates hit the road this week to play division rivals St. Louis and Cincinnati for their final seven games before the All-Star break.
The Pirates entered their weekend series against the Phillies in third place in the National League Central, trailing the Cardinals by 11/2 games and leading the Reds by one-half game.
The Cardinals have struggled to score recently, but took the final two games of a series against the San Francisco Giants this past week. Their 3.67 runs per game ranks 13th in the National League, ahead of only the Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres, who swept the Reds last week.