Cook: Alvarez must shake his slump, and fast


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ST. LOUIS

There is no telling when Starling Marte will get past his hand injury and return to the Pirates lineup. Manager Clint Hurdle said Friday that Marte is making progress and started swinging a bat with both hands this week. The team could activate Marte soon if only to take advantage of his speed as a pinch-runner.

More worrisome for the Pirates, there also is no telling when Pedro Alvarez will be a contributing part of the lineup again. There is nothing wrong with him physically. It is his bat that has been seriously ill. It still might be on the critical list despite Alvarez's two hits Friday night in a 12-8 beating by the St. Louis Cardinals in a one-sided game that took on surprising intensity late because of a bit of apparent head-hunting.

It's nice that the Pirates filled huge holes in right field and at first base by trading for Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau last week. Byrd had another hit Friday and is batting .371 in nine games with the team. Morneau went 0 for 4 but still is hitting .357 on the trip. Each man figures to do a lot of heavy lifting down the stretch.

But the Pirates lineup won't be complete and at its best until Marte and Alvarez are back.

Especially Alvarez.

Maybe Alvarez's two hits will get him going. He smoked a two-out single up the middle on 2-2 pitch from Cardinals starter Joe Kelly in the fifth to drive in the Pirates' first run and make the score 5-1. It was his first RBI since Aug. 27. He doubled to left-center in the eighth long after the game had been decided.

Of course, the Pirates hoped that a bullet of a home run that Alvarez hit off the PNC Park foul pole against the Milwaukee Brewers Aug. 27 -- No. 32 for the season -- would get him rolling. It did not. It's the only home run he has hit since Aug. 19, a span of 55 at-bats.

Alvarez has been in one of those slumps that make you want to scream when you watch him. Before his single off Kelly, he had been 2 for 30 since going 4 for 4 in that Aug. 27 game. He had been 0 for his past 9 with runners in scoring position.

Alvarez came up small in the Pirates' most important at-bat against the Cardinals.

It's easy to blame starter A.J. Burnett for the loss. He was awful, throwing up batting practice to a team that had just lost three of four games to the Cincinnati Reds, scoring a total of four runs in the losses. He gave up two runs in the first inning and three more in the third when the Cardinals opened the inning triple, double, double, double. The Pirates were done. Kelly has won five consecutive starts and eight consecutive decisions.

The Cardinals continued to pile on by sending 12 men to the plate in their seven-run seventh, which included three doubles and a three-run home run by Yadier Molina off Bryan Morris. The Cardinals, not to mention home plate umpire Tony Randazzo, didn't like it when Morris came in high and tight to Molina a few pitches earlier. The Cardinals jumped to the top step of their dugout as Randazzo warned Morris. Pirates reliever Kris Johnson hit Jon Jay with a pitch in the fifth, prompting Jay to throw his bat toward the Cardinals dugout in anger.

The Cardinals got even in the eighth when reliever John Axford hit pinch-hitter Tony Sanchez in the shoulder. Randozzi quickly ejected Axford and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. Now, the Pirates were on the top step of the dugout.

Stay tuned tonight.

Lost in all the excitement was the fact that Alvarez had a big chance in the first inning to give the game an entirely different feel. He bounced out to second with the bases loaded and two outs. It continued his struggles against the Cardinals, a team he owned last season when he hit .397 against them with seven home runs and 23 RBIs in 58 at-bats. This season, the numbers are .188 with two home runs and 11 RBIs in 69 at-bats.

Hurdle has done his part to get Alvarez going again. He dropped him from fourth to sixth in the lineup after Morneau arrived. He also gave him the night off against Milwaukee's tough right-hander Yovani Gallardo Wednesday.

But there's only so much a manager can do. A hitter has to take ownership for his production. Alvarez hasn't been nearly good enough for a long time. He hasn't done much since the All-Star break, hitting .202 with eight home runs and 25 RBIs.

The one positive for the Pirates is that Alvarez almost always follows his slumps with a hot streak. Maybe the two hits are only the beginning for him. It had better be for the Pirates. If they're going to hold off the Cardinals and Reds in the National League Central Division race, that hot streak had better happen sooner rather than later.

pirates - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published September 7, 2013 4:15 AM


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