Bob Smizik: Ishikawa looking good

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The No. 1 story of this ever-so-young MLB season involving the Pirates has been, beyond doubt, the continuation of the outstanding starting pitching that was highly instrumental in the team reaching the playoffs last year. The Pirates got their fourth quality start of the four-game season Friday night, this one from Gerrit Cole, in a 12-2 slamming of the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park.

But Cole -- seven innings, two runs, six hits, three strikeouts -- was not the top story of this game. The No. 1 story was Pedro Alvarez, the man who entered the game with one hit in 15 at-bats in 2014. Such droughts are not unexpected from Alvarez. Nor was his two-homer performance, both coming of St. Louis starter Shelby Miller, which staked the Pirates to a 2-0 lead.

Now for the player who has the most intriguing storyline of this young season. That designation falls to Travis Ishikawa, a 30-year-old first baseman whose resume indicates he should be flattered to be called a journeyman.

Ishikawa looked to be an afterthought when the Pirates signed him to a minor-league deal in December. And two months from now -- maybe two weeks from now -- that designation will seem appropriate. For now, though, Ishikawa is the Pirates' starter at first base and based on his home run Friday night he might hold that position longer than some expected.

Ishikawa homered in the fourth, two batters after Alvarez, for his first of the season. He’d been nothing special -- two hits in the opener, two walks in the 16-inning second game -- but he had done nothing to lose the job he unexpectedly won in spring training.

The plan, most thought, was for Gaby Sanchez to get most of the playing time at first base. But Sanchez has yet to get a start as manager Clint Hurdle has opted to go with the left-handed hitting Ishikawa against the four right-handed starters the Pirates have faced.

Although Hurdle has indicated Sanchez will start Sunday, also against a right-hander, that’s more of a nod to keeping Sanchez fresh than it is to his ability to handle right-handed pitching. Ishikawa did not bring glittering credentials against right-handed pitching -- .736 lifetime OPS -- but they were better than those of Sanchez. The job, against right-handed pitching, appears to be his as long as he remains productive.

Cole’s performance put the ERA for Pirates starters this season at 1.80. He followed strong performances from Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton and an encouraging one from Wandy Rodriguez.

The Pirates are 3-1, which is a reversal from their four-game record of last season. The backward step the team was widely expected to take has been, thus far, a forward one.

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