Notes: Struggling in a pinch

Notes: Struggling in a pinch

PITTSBURGH -- When looking for reasons as to why the Pirates have been unable to gain ground against a Milwaukee team that went 14-15 in May, the finger can be pointed in all directions.

Yes, there has been inconsistency from three of the rotation's starting spots. There have been run-scoring opportunities wasted, and the puzzle pieces that make up the Pirates bullpen are still being put together.

But while all of those factors have been addressed about as often as Lindsay Lohan's personal issues of late, pinch-hitting needs to be added to the list.

"From the bench side of things, we haven't done real well off the bench as far as pinch-hitting situations are concerned," said manager Jim Tracy.

That doesn't even begin to tell the story.

The Pirates have a dismal nine pinch-hits this season in 72 at-bats, which calculates to a concerning .125 average for anyone who really wants to know.

The problem crept up again on Friday, when Pittsburgh went hitless in two pinch-hit at-bats in a one-run game.

"When you are starting and you don't feel right, you can kind of come back later and have another chance, [you] can make adjustments," said Nate McLouth, who struck out as a pinch-hitter in the eighth on Friday with the tying run on base. "Obviously when you're pinch-hitting, it's one and done. It's a tough part of the game, but it's an important part of the game."

That it is. And Pittsburgh has been unable to find anyone reliable off the bench in the first two months of the season.

McLouth finally picked up a pinch-hit double on Thursday to break an 0-for-20 pinch-hitting streak for the Pittsburgh outfielder, who is now 4-for-26 as a pinch-hitter this year. Jose Castillo is 1-for-11 off the bench. Don Kelly is 2-for-14.

"Groove and pinch-hitting is kind of a tough word to use in the same sentence," McLouth said. "It's tough."

No one will argue that the role is tough. It's tough to come in against the best the opposing bullpen has to offer. And it's tough to gain any type of momentum offensively. But if the Pirates are hopeful of staying in the division mix, pinch-hitting is going to be one of the keys.

Bye bye bro: The storyline that was the LaRoche family reunion didn't quite have the fairy-tale ending that the family had hoped for.

It really never had the chance to.

Immediately following Friday's game, the Dodgers optioned third baseman Andy LaRoche to Triple-A Las Vegas in order to make room for Saturday night's pitcher Hong-Chih Kuo.

"We talked a lot after the game," said older brother Adam LaRoche when asked how his brother handled the news. "I tried to encourage him, [tell him to] keep his head up, go down there, do his thing and hurry up and get back up."

The timing of Andy LaRoche's demotion wasn't exactly ideal. The brothers' father, Dave LaRoche, who is the pitching coach for Toronto's Double-A affiliate in New Hampshire, had scheduled a trip down to Pittsburgh to attend Monday's series finale between the Pirates and Dodgers.

Though Dave LaRoche will still be in the stands on Monday, he won't have the opportunity to see both of his sons play on the same Major League field just yet.

"It would have been nice if he could have gotten a couple of more days out of it and that was his thing," said Adam LaRoche. "He wanted to play, he's been looking forward to this as much as anybody. He wanted to play against me and our team. But he's fine now, he knows what he's gotta do, he knows he's young, still has a lot of years ahead of him and you gotta go down and prove yourself."

Burnett update: Sean Burnett, one of the three highly coveted Pirates pitchers at Triple-A Indianapolis, will travel to Pittsburgh early next week to be evaluated by Dr. Mark Baratz on Wednesday. According to Indianapolis media relations manager Matt Segal, Burnett is being bothered by inflammation in his left elbow.

Burnett, who missed the entire 2005 season after having Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery on that same elbow in September of 2004, was placed on the team's disabled list on Friday.

Segal said he was unsure whether the elbow discomfort was something that Burnett began experiencing during his last start or if it had been bothering him for some time.

Burnett said through Segal that he did not want to comment to the media about the discomfort until after Wednesday's evaluation.

Marte update: After being unavailable out of the bullpen the past two nights due to a slight strain and tightness in his biceps, left-hander Damaso Marte threw with pitching coach Jim Colborn before Saturday's game.

Afterward, Marte said he felt no discomfort and that he was given the OK to return to the mound as soon as he is needed.

Before the throwing session, Tracy said he was still unsure of Marte's availability. Tracy did, however, seem optimistic, saying that Marte felt better on Saturday than he had the previous two days.

Torres bounces back: Reliever Salomon Torres took his new bullpen role by storm on Friday night, making Tracy look like a genius for at least one night. After blowing a save the previous night, Torres pitched a perfect seventh and eighth inning Friday and needed only 15 pitches to do so.

Tracy again reiterated on Saturday that he won't hesitate to use Torres in multi-inning situations in order to close the gap between the Pirates starters and closer Matt Capps.

Boone bloomin': University of Missouri product James Boone has been quietly putting together a notable season down in the Pirates' Minor League organization.

The 24-year-old outfielder began the season at Class A Hickory, where he played 27 games before moving up to Class A Lynchburg, where he has since posted a .320 average in 26 games.

"This year he came into Spring Training as smoking as any player I've ever seen," said Altoona manager Jeff Branson. "He's solid from both sides of the plate [and] a guy who's going to swing hard from both sides."

Boone, who Baseball America named the 18th best prospect in Pittsburgh's organization before the season, recently set a team record when he recorded multi-hit games in eight straight contests.

Speaking about the outfielder's Major League potential, Branson said: "I definitely think he's going to be an asset at some time."

Quotable: "Really? That should tell you how it's going right there." -- Adam LaRoche, after being told that his arm fell off his bobblehead when one of the reporters tried screwing the bat in it.

On deck: The Pirates will play the third of their four-game series against the Dodgers at 1:35 p.m. ET on Sunday at PNC Park. Pittsburgh lefty Tom Gorzelanny (6-3, 2.39 ERA) will start against Los Angeles right-hander Brad Penny (7-1, 2.06).

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.