Another direction for fellow NL Central contenders
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In contrast to the Pirates, who focused on strengthening their lineup and starting rotation as the non-waiver trade deadline came and went Tuesday, their main competition in the NL Central attempted to improve their bullpens.
The Cincinnati Reds, who lead the division, added former Kansas City Royals right-hander Jonathan Broxton. The St. Louis Cardinals acquired right-hander Edward Mujica from the Miami Marlins.
That's the great thing about baseball," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Every division you look at, the teams that right now are vying and contending tried to fortify in a very positive and, some of them, a very impactful fashion."
Broxton saved 23 games for the Royals in the first half of the season and joins the strongest bullpen in the major leagues. Entering Thursday's games, Reds relievers had a 2.59 ERA, only slightly ahead of the Pirates' 2.81. Broxton will set up closer Aroldis Chapman.
Mujica had a 2.89 strikeout-to-walk ratio for the Marlins in 41 appearances. He joined a Cardinals relief corps that ranked 22nd in the majors in ERA.
Hurdle keeps tabs on the goings-on of the league and said each team, not just contenders, faced challenges in how to navigate the trade deadline.
"This is a very trying time for all those guys we've had on the street for the past six weeks, watching games, making comments," he said. "We've all been trying to just make sense of it and keep it simple."
More opportunity for Hughes
The departure of Brad Lincoln coincided with the rise of Jared Hughes, who may now pitch the seventh inning more often.
Hughes got one out in the seventh inning of Wednesday's 8-4 win against the Chicago Cubs. He pitched the seventh in back-to-back games against the Cubs in late July and the eighth in a 3-0 win against the Marlins July 22.
"I'm just going to be ready whenever they need me to pitch, and that's been the case all year," Hughes said.
The 27-year-old right-hander had allowed 11 earned runs in 502/3 innings entering the weekend series against the Reds. He had only 28 strikeouts in those 502/3 innings, instead relying on his sinker to induce ground balls.
Hughes said he feels better as he throws more, not only during an outing but also as the year has unfolded.
"As the season progresses, it's going to continue to get better," he said. "As my career progresses, I'm going to get better repeating my delivery. It gets better during the outing but it also gets better month by month."
'Power of positive thinking'
When asked Wednesday about the Pirates' offense in the previous two months, hitting coach Gregg Ritchie held up three fingers.
Three, as in three months. Wednesday was the first day of August and the Pirates had scored eight runs in a win against the Cubs.
"We're into the third," he said with a smile. "That's called the power of positive thinking."
After leading the majors in runs scored in June, the Pirates scored the third-most runs in the NL in July and led the NL in home runs in the month with 39. They hit a combined 38 in April and May.
Ritchie said he and the Pirates knew their offensive improvement was possible.
"Why wouldn't you?" he said. "Why wouldn't you have thought it from the very beginning? If you never thought it from the beginning, you wouldn't have gotten here."
Part of the improvement, Ritchie said, resulted from getting in a good hitting position in the batter's box. That led to more consistent contact.
"The game allows you to find holes when you're consistent. You hear a lot of times, 'If I was that lucky, I'd get hits too,' when a guy gets a little dink shot. No," he corrected, "[it's] if you were that good. Because the guy that's good is in such a good position to hit ... before he swings the bat.
"Holes will come when you consistently hit the ball hard," he continued. Players sometimes wonder why they hit balls hard right at defenders. "Because you hit the ball hard once in the last seven [times up]," he said. "If that doesn't find a hole, you're not going to get a hit."
Looking ahead: Diamondbacks
Going into Friday, Arizona, which begins a four-game series at PNC Park Monday, had won three in a row and seven of its past 10 to pull within two games of the San Francisco Giants in the NL West.
The Diamondbacks, though, have their work cut out for them in the division. The rival Los Angeles Dodgers traded for Shane Victorino and the Giants traded for Hunter Pence at the deadline.
The Pirates must find a way to stop Diamondbacks outfielder Jason Kubel, who hit .279 with 11 home runs in July. He had a .919 on-base-plus-slugging percentage entering the weekend.
Of note, the Diamondbacks recently recalled left-hander Patrick Corbin, 23, who has bounced between the majors and Class AAA this season. Corbin, a top-10 prospect in the Diamondbacks system, according to Baseball America, is on track to start the series opener Monday.
ON THE WEB: Join Pirates beat writer Bill Brink for a chat at noon Tuesday.
First Published August 5, 2012 12:00 am