Bucs' bench playing crucial role early

Bucs' bench playing crucial role early

CHICAGO -- With all the stress that the injuries and illnesses and plethora of extra-inning contests have brought on the club in recent weeks, there is the possibility that the Pirates could reap long-term benefits from all of it as the season progresses.

When it comes to the injuries, it's not so much who missed playing time, but instead, it's who didn't. And when it comes to playing extra innings, it may not just be who got the big hit, but the fact that so many different players had a chance for it.

While the Pirates have used 13 different lineups in 15 games so far, the fact that manager John Russell has consistently had to call on a number of his bench players to fill in has left him with a fresh group of hitters on the bench.

So in a case like on Friday, where Russell was able to start all his regulars (minus Jack Wilson, who remains on the disabled list), the bench will at least be made up of players who have seen stable playing time. And that, Russell said, should pay dividends down the line.

"With what we're doing on the bench, to have to call these guys to come in and pinch-hit is tough," Russell said. "I'm going to try and get these guys starts."

Because Wilson, Freddy Sanchez and Adam LaRoche all missed time early recovering from injuries, and LaRoche and Ryan Doumit sat out recovering from a virus last week, Russell has had an easier time managing than he would have wanted.

With Wilson out since the first week of the season, Luis Rivas (eight starts) and Brian Bixler (five starts) have each rotated starts in recent days. The versatility of infielders Chris Gomez and Doug Mientkiewicz has also been crucial early on, as they have started four and five games, respectively. Each has appeared in at least 10 of the first 15 games in all.

In other words, everyone is getting a chance.

Last season, one in which the Pirates were not deterred by injuries and illness early, their bench started the season a dismal 9-for-72 (.125 average) through mid-June. Now, not even three weeks into this season, Pirates bench hitters have five hits in 24 at-bats (.208).

Is it possible that the success could be linked to the fact that the pinch-hitters are getting more consistent at-bats?

Absolutely, Russell said.

"The challenge throughout the 162 games is to keep them as fresh as we can; I think that's a big thing," Russell said. "The injuries have and obviously the extra-inning games have allowed us to get guys involved."

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