Bob Smizik: Offense stares down adversity

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Talk about stepping up! No McCutchen, no Walker, no Alvarez? No problem!

Pirates hitters, playing without some of their most productive teammates, have not so much as blinked at the adversity they are facing. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez have batted a combined 27 times this month. But despite the staggering loss of those players, it wasn’t time to panic. It was time to produce.

Through the first 11 games of August the Pirates are bashing the ball. They lead the National League in most important offensive categories, including runs and OPS. They’ve scored 56 times, an average of better than five a game, and are 7-4 in the not-so-dog-days.

The pitching has been good. The hitting has been much better.

The reverence fans hold for pitching coach Ray Searage is well known. That respect even dips down to the minors where Jim Benedict is held in the highest regard. How many of those same fans could even name the Pirates batting coaches? Let’s hear it for Jeff Branson and Jeff Livesey, two guys, as coaches should, who stay under the radar.

Sure, it’s only 11 games but it mirrors what the team has done all season. The Pirates are third in runs for the season, first in on-base percentage and second in OPS.

There was no great offensive outburst last night, just a 4-2 win over Detroit at PNC Park. But look who was in the middle of this win -- the much-criticized first basemen. Yep, Gaby Sanchez drove in the first run and Ike Davis, as a pinch-hitter, the fourth.

Consider these August batting averages: Josh Harrison .467, Jordy Mercer and Gregory Polanco .366; Russell Martin .364; Starling Marte .357. That is known as picking up the slack. Travis Snider, the main sub for McCutchen, is batting .257 but with two homers and seven RBIs.

The notable absentees from this onslaught are Davis, Sanchez and Jayson Nix. Davis and Nix, who is filling in for Walker, are batting .167 and Sanchez .200.

The key hits last night by Davis and Sanchez, both doubles, only serve to lend more mystery to the first-base situation, where Alvarez, having lost his third-base job to Harrison, might be in line for some playing time.

The matter could sort itself out tomorrow and Thursday when the Pirates and Tigers play in Detroit. With right-handers pitching both games for the Tigers, Alvarez is the almost-certain DH with Davis playing first base. How the two perform may well determine which one starts Friday when the Pirates face Washington right-hander Tanner Roark.

It’s not like Alvarez has done anything to distinguish himself this month. Unlike Walker and McCutchen, he’s not injured -- only hurting at the plate and in the field. He’s 1-for-10 in August and batting .192 with two homers since July 1.

The Pirates are functioning quite well offensively with little help from their first basemen but they are going to need production from that position and probably sooner rather than later.


• Edinson Volquez pitched the first six innings for the Pirates and allowed two runs on five hits while walking two and striking out five. The win raised Volquez’s record to 10-7. He is the only active Pirates starter with more than five wins.

• The bullpen -- Justin Wilson, Tony Watson and Mark Melancon -- was dazzling, limiting the Tigers to two singles and no walks over the final three innings while striking out two. Both singles came against Melancon with one out, but he retire Torii Hunter and Rajai Davis to end the game.

• Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati all lost. The Pirates are in second place in the NL Central, 1 1/2 games behind the Brewers and the same number of games ahead of the Cardinals. They continue to lead the wild-card standings.

• Looking ahead: The Pirates have a huge advantage in the pitching matchup tonight. Vance Worley is 5-1 with a 2.30 ERA for the Pirates. In his past four starts, his ERA is 0.96. Buck Farmer will be making his MLB debut for the Tigers. In two starts in the Class AA Eastern League, he is 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA. He was 10-5 with a 2.60 ERA in the Class A Midwest League.

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