Pirates' hot corner ice cold
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LOS ANGELES -- This was to be the year the Pirates' Jose Bautista entrenched himself as an everyday third baseman.
No more doubts.
No more looking over his shoulder.
No more speculation that, because he can play every other infield and outfield position, he might be best suited for utility work.
So far, though, as he will bluntly concede, it is not exactly working out.
- Game: Pirates vs. Chicago Cubs, 2:20 p.m., Wrigley Field, Chicago.
- TV/Radio: WGN, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Ian Snell (2-0, 3.93) vs. LHP Rich Hill (0-0, 5.00).
- Key matchup: Hill vs. his command. Lou Piniella gave him a three-inning hook in his most recent start April 10 at PNC Park, after he ran up three runs, four walks and 72 pitches. He gave way to Jon Lieber and an eventual 7-3 Chicago win.
- Of note: The Cubs have won eight of 11, including that three-game sweep in Pittsburgh, but will be without All-Star left fielder Alfonso Soriano because of a strained right calf.
"Honestly, I'm trying. I'm doing everything I can," Bautista said. "But this is the worst time of my life right now."
It is early, only 15 games into the Pirates' season. It is relatively early in Bautista's career, too, given that he is 27 and coming off his first full summer of everyday duty.
But that does little to diminish these kinds of numbers to this point:
• A .164 average, lowest of all National League third basemen.
• One home run, that coming Monday in the 6-4 victory against Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium.
• Thirteen strikeouts in 55 at-bats, meaning he has fanned as often as he has reached base.
• Five errors, most in Major League Baseball at his position.
On the latter count, Bautista takes great exception, feeling that three errors were undeserved and one other -- Wednesday, when the Dodgers' Matt Kemp deftly avoided his tag during a first-inning rundown -- was no reflection on his defense.
"When I'm talking about what's going wrong, I'm talking about offense," he said. "That's all I'm referring to. I don't think I've done badly defensively."
At the plate, Bautista is coming off two encouraging, if not emphatic, seasons, especially from the power standpoint.
He hit 16 home runs in 2006, 15 last year. The RBI total of 63 last year was decent, too, but the average topped at .254, and that is the figure that surely will have to rise -- without sacrificing power -- for Bautista to achieve his goal.
Early last season, he pledged to take something off his swing and try to raise his average and cut down strikeouts. Rather than take three all-or-nothing swings per at-bat, it would be one or two. From there, according to the plan, he would gradually increase the number of big swings.
That worked adequately. He had only three home runs in the first two months, but kept his average around .280 and became more patient, more comfortable, before starting to go deep again.
Nothing is clicking.
Consider that his patience has been very much in place, evidenced by his seeing more pitches per at-bat than anyone on the team other than torrid Nate McLouth. In Bautista's final at-bat Wednesday, he dueled Dodgers closer Takashi Saito for 10 pitches before sending a harmless squibber up the first-base line.
"And it doesn't go foul. It goes fair," Bautista recalled. "It's that type of year for me right now."
INDIANAPOLIS (11-4) beat Pawtucket, 5-4. RHP John Van Benschoten (3-0, 2.60) allowed one run and four hits in five innings. He struck out and walked three each. RHP Marino Salas (0.00) pitched two-thirds of a scoreless inning for his first save. RF Steve Pearce (.279) hit two home runs, including a grand slam, and went 2 for 4 with five RBIs. CF Andrew McCutchen (.241) went 1 for 4. 1B Craig Wilson (.152) went 0 for 3.
ALTOONA (6-8) beat Erie, 6-1. RHP Yoslan Herrera (1-1, 4.50) allowed one run and four hits in five innings. CF James Boone (.298) went 2 for 3 with a walk and an RBI.
LYNCHBURG (4-9) lost at Salem, 3-0. RHP Mike Crotta (2-1, 4.41) allowed two runs and six hits in five innings. 2B Jim Negrych (.405) went 2 for 4.
HICKORY (8-7) lost to Lexington, 8-3. RHP Dustin Molleken (1-1, 2.81) allowed four runs and seven hits in four innings. RF Keanon Simon (.359) went 3 for 4.
Extra preparation is not paying, either. No player has spent more bonus time in the cages than Bautista, and none has logged more time studying video along with hitting coach Don Long.
Trying a different approach hours before the game Monday, Long took Bautista into the still-empty seats at Dodger Stadium to simply talk for more than a half-hour.
The immediate result was great. He crushed a Hiroki Kuroda slider deep into the left-field pavilion for that two-run home run and, after a couple of solid flyouts, lined a single to left.
But the next two games brought an 0-for-8 line with three strikeouts, and the sinking continued.
"I feel like I'm getting better. I'm laying off some tough pitches, getting to where I want to be and ... I don't know. Maybe I'm trying too hard, expanding my strike zone a little."
Could he be working too hard?
Overthinking it all?
"I don't think I'm overdoing anything yet. I'm just going to keep focusing on my preparation, getting ready for every game, every at-bat."
Chances are excellent those opportunities will continue to come, too, if only for the Pirates' dearth of options at third base.
At the major-league level, Doug Mientkiewicz spelled Bautista once last weekend. But Mientkiewicz is 33 and has virtually no experience at the position. Chris Gomez can play there, too, but he is 35, also offering the Pirates little reason to abandon a much younger player.
In the minors, the heir apparent at third base is Neil Walker at Class AAA Indianapolis, but he is little more than a year removed from the team converting him from catcher and is not, by any measure, ready defensively. Moreover, he is batting .196.
Bautista is not the type to dwell much on who might replace him someday, but he does display a keen awareness that, if he does not improve drastically, someone surely will.
"If I don't start getting results here in a little bit, something's got to change. I'm just going to keep working and, hopefully, it gets better."
First Published April 18, 2008 12:00 am