Bob Smizik: Starling Marte gaining discipline

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The Pirates got a rare poor start last night, but it made no difference. The hitters bailed out Charlie Morton and the bullpen, with one glitch, did its job. The result: A 7-6 win over the Chicago Cubs and a 5-2 record that has them tied with Milwaukee for first in the NL Central, one-half game ahead of St. Louis. After seven games last season, the Pirates were 2-5 and three games behind first-place Cincinnati.

Seven random thoughts on last night and the first seven games:

• The most pleasant offensive surprise this season and one that bodes extremely well for the offense in the days ahead has been the plate discipline of Starling Marte. He drew two walks last night, which gives him him five in 35 plate appearances. In 2013, he didn’t draw his fifth walk until his 82nd plate appearance. In 2012, Marte’s on-base percentage was 43 points higher than his batting average. Last year it was 63 points higher. This year it is 119 points higher.

• This just in: Tony Watson is human. After 23⅔ scoreless innings, dating back to Aug. 3 of last season, Watson allowed a run last night. He came in to protect a 6-5 lead in the bottom of the seventh but gave up a single, a sacrifice and a single, which allowed the Cubs to tie the game. When the Pirates went ahead to stay in the eighth, Watson came away with this rare daily double: a win and a blown save.

• The near-absence of left-handed pitchers in the NL Central is welcome news for Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker but not so for other Pirates who feast on lefties. Most notably, the no-lefty diet is keeping Gaby Sanchez and the .897 career OPS he has against them on the bench and playing havoc with Jordy Mercer’s batting average. Mercer had the highest batting average in MLB last season against lefties, .410 (32-for-78). His batting average this season is .188 (3-for-16). He’s had one at-bat versus LHP.

• It’s been a sign of respect to the National League MVP and a sign of disrespect to the NL home-run leader that Andrew McCutchen was walked six times in the first six games. Opposing pitchers were willing to take their chances with Alvarez. He was not able to drive in McCutchen following any of those six walks. But he made the Cubs pay last night with a two-run double that followed a walk to McCutchen in the first inning. It was only the third run McCutchen has scored this season, despite an on-base percentage of .441.

• Looks like manager Clint Hurdle was speaking with a forked tongue when he said before the season that first base and right field would not be strict platoons. The Travis brothers, Snider and Ishikawa, have started every game but one at those positions, and that was more a nod to giving Jose Tabata and Gaby Sanchez playing time on Sunday. The positions both have been almost strictly straight platoons. Ishikawa, for one, is making Hurdle look good. He drove in two runs last night with a sacrifice fly and a triple and has an impressive .588 slugging percentage.

• Who would have expected it to take until their fourth appearance of the season for both Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon to notch their first strikeout? Melancon got his first in an efficient nine-pitch/eight-strike eighth inning and Grilli his in a 10-pitch/seven-strike ninth. Both retired the side in order.

• The Pirates gave Morton a 4-0 lead in the first but he gave one back in the second and then allowed a three-run homer to Starlin Castro in the third. He allowed a solo homer to Castro in the sixth. Going into the game, Castro was 6-for-18, all singles, against Morton. Nothing should be read into this mediocre performance. No pitcher delivers 32 quality starts.

• Good Pedro: He has struck out only five times this season and has more walks, six, than whiffs. Bad Pedro: He’s batting .192 and the Pirates have yet to face a left-handed starter.


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