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LaRoche loving early-season start

LaRoche loving early-season start

SAN DIEGO -- So maybe it hasn't been good enough to denote him as Mr. April, but taking Adam LaRoche's history into account, the production that he has given the Pirates this month can allow him to sleep a little better.

As the Pirates close out the first month of the season with a three-game series against the Brewers beginning on Monday, LaRoche will personally look to end a month that until this season had been defined by ineptitude.

Fewer stories around the Pirates have been rehashed as often or analyzed as deeply as that of LaRoche's perennial slow starts. Everyone has suggested reasons why. Just as many have suggested solutions.

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Well, don't look now, but LaRoche is hitting .288 with only six days left this month. He began the road trip hitting .305, and though that average dipped some with only two hits against the Padres, both of those hits left the park.

In other words, LaRoche successfully found an answer for his early season struggles, or if nothing else, found a way to work through it.

The difference has been what exactly?

"No idea what it is," said LaRoche, who has a team-leading five homers and 14 RBIs. "But I'm not complaining. That's behind me now."

Before this season, LaRoche never eclipsed more than 15 hits in the month of April. After two on Sunday, he's already at 19 with three games remaining. And if his career numbers against Milwaukee are a harbinger for his output over the next three days, LaRoche will add a few more hits to that tally. He is a career .320 hitter against the Brewers.

In general, though, the difference in his number this month as compared to previous Aprils is staggering. In his previous five seasons, LaRoche never hit better than .214 in the first month of the season. In his first two seasons with the Pirates, those April averages were .133 and .174, respectively. His career batting average in April fell well below the Mendoza Line at .181 heading into this season.

LaRoche tried a number of things this spring with the hopes that it would kick off his season in the right direction. He took more called strikes, an attempt to train his eye earlier. He often started his swing a tad later, an attempt at seeing pitches a split-second longer.

As for his attempt at finding an answer to his quick start this season: "I think before part of it could have been just flying open," the first baseman said. "I feel like now I'm just trying to stay to the middle of the field with everything. And if I jam myself, I jam myself. I've struggled in the past with off-speed pitches away and now I'm staying on them a little bit better and giving myself a chance."

Being willing to hit to the opposite field continues to allow him to see the ball longer and keeps his body in ideal position.

Regardless of what the answer to his April woes may be, the important thing for the Pirates is that they have been solved, at least temporarily. LaRoche is expected to continue being the team's primary clean-up hitter during Ryan Doumit's extended absence.

"He's a big part of our season and he will be," manager John Russell said of LaRoche. "We'll go through the highs and lows with everybody. It's what you make of it. The biggest thing is you just want to see good at-bats in situations where you need good at-bats."

Pitching matchup
PIT: RHP Jeff Karstens (1-0, 3.60 ERA)
After a shaky first outing, Karstens rebounded to allow just one run in six innings on Tuesday against the Marlins. He was much more efficient with his pitch count, needing only 87 pitches to go that deep. Karstens isn't going to overpower anyone, which makes it that much more critical that he gets first-pitch strikes and is efficient. It should benefit Karstens, too, that he is now pitching on a normal four-to-five days of rest after having a 17-day layoff prior to his first outing.

MIL: RHP Braden Looper (2-0, 2.12 ERA)
Looper has emerged as an early-season stopper for the Brewers. They had lost three of four games before he took the mound Wednesday in Philadelphia and delivered six shutout innings for his second Brewers win. The key, especially considering Looper did not strike out a single batter, was that he issued only two walks, and both were partly by design. They both went to Phillies slugger Ryan Howard, who grounded into a double play in his first at-bat but entered the night 4-for-5 against Looper with four home runs. Looper has walked only three batters in his last two starts, both wins. He has a 3.02 ERA in 29 career appearances against the Pirates, five of them starts.

Bucs bits
Phil Dumatrait has had a minor setback in extended Spring Training, where he is working his way back from a left shoulder injury. Dumatrait missed his last start due to some shoulder soreness and will be reevaluated on Monday to determine when he can begin throwing again. Right now, the soreness is not believed to be anything more than what is often the case as a pitcher works to build his arm back. Dumatrait made his last start on Monday. ... When the Pirates begin a three-game series against Milwaukee on Monday, they'll do so trying to break a 15-game losing streak at Miller Park. The Pirates' last win in Milwaukee came on May 3, 2007. ... Nyjer Morgan enters Monday's game having hit safely seven straight games. ... Third baseman Andy LaRoche takes a career-best 10 game hitting streak into the series. ... Triple-A lefty Tom Gorzelanny allowed three earned runs on four walks and six hits in 5 1/3 innings on Sunday.

Tickets
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On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• FSN-HD

On radio
• WPGB-FM 104.7

Up next
• Tuesday: Pirates (Paul Maholm, 3-0, 2.03) at Brewers (TBD), 8:05 p.m. ET
• Wednesday: Pirates (Ian Snell, 1-2, 4.50) at Brewers (Yovani Gallardo, 2-1, 3.71), 1:05 p.m. ET
• Thursday: Off-day

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

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