PITTSBURGH -- Through the first couple of weeks this season, while the Pirates faced that military procession of starting pitchers -- left, right, left, right -- everyone in uniform minimized its effect on the team's ghastly offensive performance. Yet with that parade now over, it's "About face!" At least for admittedly the most vital link in the lineup: Pedro Alvarez. Rather than sit every other day as manager Clint Hurdle protected his confidence against some of the National League's toughest left-handers, Alvarez has been able to get into a rhythm. And the beat has been pretty encouraging.
Since the Bucs first got right-handers back-to-back -- April 17-18, in Arizona -- Alvarez has three homers and five RBIs. Admittedly, numbers Matt Kemp would throw back into the pond. But small steps: Alvarez had only one of each prior to then. "Obviously, the more looks you get, the more repetitive it becomes, it gets more instinctive," Alvarez said after a Wednesday doubleheader which qualified as monumental for him. He homered in each game against the Rockies; two games or not, it was his first multihomer day since July 20-21, 2010, when as a novice big leaguer and did it in back-to-back games against the Brewers to light the high expectations that still burn. With a double in the nightcap as well, Alvarez posted his first game with two extra-base hits in over a year, since last April 21, when he likewise had a double and a homer against the Marlins. The double came off Colorado lefty Rex Brothers -- Alvarez's first hit of the season off a southpaw. That last fact actually underscores Alvarez's overall struggles. That first hit gave him a higher average against lefties (.167) than against right-handers (.154). It came in only his sixth at-bat against a left-hander. "We want him to be a full-time player, and believe he will be," Hurdle said. "He hasn't been dodging all left-handers, but we tried to be smart with it, pick his spots. "He had a good day [on Wednesday]. He'll sleep well. Time will tell." Alvarez continues to be regarded as the Pirates' barometer. Their long-range fortunes are tied to his performance for the obvious reason that no one else in the lineup has comparable power. He has spent most of the young season in the seven-hole; the Bucs will be at their best when he proves deserving of taking over at No. 4 or No. 5. As perceptive and astute as anyone in that clubhouse, Alvarez is fully aware of his responsibility and of the long rope he has been given to fulfill it. "I'm just grateful for the opportunities I've been getting. I'm going out there to take full advantage of it, to compete," Alvarez said. "It's just a matter of going out there and competing. Trying to keep it as simple as possible -- just go out and try to play this game." For Alvarez, the toughest thing about his yearlong slump has been trying to explain it. Typically, athletes tend to be far less analytical than outsiders seeking answers to their micro-questions. "I try to keep it as instinctive as possible," Alvarez said. "When you go out there and just try to trust your abilities and just play the game, everything takes care of itself." Alvarez spent considerable Spring Training time tinkering with his stance, his footwork, his "trigger" in the batter's box. But he wants to leave all that stuff in the batting cage. Between the lines, the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle takes over. "I know it sounds redundant," he said, "but it is just a matter of going out there and trying to see the ball and putting a good swing on it." Some people with the outer calm that Alvarez projects have inner tensions which no one sees. But the third baseman's serenity seems genuine, and doubtless helps him cope with the criticism that has been ravaging him. Otherwise, it wouldn't be easy being a 25-year-old getting nominations as the ultimate No. 1 Draft pick bust. Baseball America laid that on Alvarez, saying that unless he regains the assets that made him the overall No. 2 pick in 2008, "you could argue that he's the biggest waste of hitting talent in Draft history." Days like Wednesday embarrass anyone putting those words on paper. Do they lead to more of the same? "I'm encouraged enough to keep putting him in the lineup," Hurdle said. "But you always want to see tangible evidence. A big part of it is confidence. When you put the barrel of the bat on the ball, it's, 'OK, I can do this.' If it keeps clicking, it's, 'OK, I've got this.' "We're all slaves to success. Nothing creates confidence in sports like success. It takes courage to have patience in challenging times. You have to give men a chance to work it out." Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington -- who declared in the middle of Alvarez's horrible Spring Training that he was secure as the club's third baseman -- have done that. On Wednesday, Alvarez may have been saying, "I'll take it from here."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.