McGehee has been key defender for Pirates

McGehee has been key defender for Pirates

McGehee has been key defender for Pirates
MILWAUKEE -- There were plenty of defensive gems to go around Saturday night when Pittsburgh topped Milwaukee, 6-4, most notably a sliding catch by Andrew McCutchen in center field to preserve a two-run lead in the eighth. Two more highlight-reel plays came from infielders Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez -- and both were saved on picks by first baseman Casey McGehee.

For a guy new to the position, McGehee certainly hasn't done anything to hurt Pittsburgh's cause on defense this year.

"That was a work in progress all through Spring Training, and in our eyes, he's probably our best defender there," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said after Saturday's win.

McGehee played first base in just one game as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011, spending the remainder of his time at third base. But with Alvarez entrenched at the hot corner in Pittsburgh, McGehee's best opportunity to crack the lineup came on the other side of the diamond. He's made two errors and owns a .996 fielding percentage at first this year, ranking among the league leaders for National League players with at least 400 chances.

He won't be mistaken with the elite defensive first basemen in the game. However, his Ultimate Zone Rating, a popular defensive metric that attempts to quantify a player's defensive value in terms of runs saved or surrendered, is in the positive and ranks sixth in the National League among first basemen with at least 200 innings played.

"I've always taken a lot of pride in what I do with the glove," McGehee said. "It took a little while to like first base or get used to it, but I'm starting to enjoy it. I always liked being on the other side of a throw you're wishing you had back and seeing a guy pick you up. It's a lot easier when they hit me in the chest, but I try to do what I can to pick them up."

In the fourth inning Saturday, Walker ranged to his right at second base to grab a Cesar Izturis grounder, making an off-balance delivery that McGehee picked for the out. In the fifth, Alvarez barehanded a ball on the run and retired the speedy Ryan Braun, with McGehee handling the throw in the dirt. In the seventh, McGehee himself made an in-between hop from George Kottaras look routine.

Far flashier was the play he made on June 28, when he flagged down a foul pop before lunging over the railing into the stands to end a Philadelphia threat in the eighth inning of a one-run game. At third base, where he recorded 20 errors last year and finished fourth among all National League fielders in that dubious category, McGehee made a diving stop to take away an extra-base hit in a one-run game against Houston on July 3. McGehee has played nine games at third base this season without a gaffe.

It's all very solid for a player who had to learn the finer points of first base after being swapped for reliever Jose Veras in the offseason.

Milwaukeeans may have been rueing that particular deal Saturday for more than just the defensive component, when McGehee went 3-for-5 with a home run and two RBIs. He had been 1-for-10 in three games back at Miller Park since he was swapped to the Pirates.

"That's the beautiful thing about this ballpark; you don't have to get quite all of them to have them stretch out for you here," McGehee said of his eighth-inning homer.

He entered Sunday 6-for-14 with a double, homer and four RBIs in his last three games -- and that counted an 0-for-5 showing Friday -- and has hit .351 in July. The Pirates have won eight of their past nine games when McGehee drives in at least one run.

Veras, who posted a 3.80 ERA last year in 71 innings for the Pirates, has struggled a bit this year in Milwaukee, going 3-3 with a 4.50 ERA. His WHIP has skyrocketed from 1.24 last year to 1.74 this season.