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Kovacevic: More, please, from Barajas, Barmes

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes returns to the dugout past manager Clint Hurdle after grounding out during the second inning Tuesday, May 8, 2012, at PNC Park. Barmes went 0 for 3 to lower his average to.159.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>  Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes returns to the dugout past manager Clint Hurdle after grounding out during the second inning Tuesday, May 8, 2012, at PNC Park. Barmes went 0 for 3 to lower his average to.159.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates catcher Rod Barajas strikes out to end the second inning against Washington Tuesday May 8, 2012 at PNC Park.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em> Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates catcher Rod Barajas strikes out to end the second inning against Washington Tuesday May 8, 2012 at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates catcher Rod Barajas returns to the dugout between hitting coach Gregg Ritchie and manager Clint Hurdle after striking out to end the second inning against Washington Tuesday May 8, 2012 at PNC Park.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em> Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates catcher Rod Barajas returns to the dugout between hitting coach Gregg Ritchie and manager Clint Hurdle after striking out to end the second inning against Washington Tuesday May 8, 2012 at PNC Park.

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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Dejan Kovacevic
Wednesday, May 9, 2012, 12:30 a.m.
 

Only once in the 126-year history of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club has the offense averaged fewer than three runs per game. That was 1917, Honus Wagner's farewell season. The average was 2.96.

The current group, which makes contact with a baseball about as often as the ghost of the great Dutchman might, is averaging 2.86 runs.

It's been that bad.

And no part of it has been worse than the bottom of the Pirates' order, where Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes have brought up the rear in just about every offensive category in Major League Baseball.

How bad?

When Barajas stepped into the box at 9:40 p.m. Tuesday at PNC Park, he lugged along a .127 average, zero home runs, zero RBI in 63 at-bats and the fresh memory of being booed by the 10,324 on hand with his previous at-bat.

Wait. It gets worse.

There were two outs in the ninth. The Pirates trailed Washington by a run. And, as fate would have it, Barajas would be in line to make the final out of another flat-liner of a defeat, this one all the more painful because Joel Hanrahan had just blown a lead in the top half.

Yeah, that bad.

Then, at 9:43 p.m., Barajas tore into a Henry Rodriguez fastball and lasered it into the base of the left-field rotunda.

He was touching 'em all.

Bottoms up and sky high.

Pirates 5, Nationals 4.

“What a feeling,” Barajas said, traces of whipped cream outlining his eyes courtesy of A.J. Burnett, who still had one accurate toss in him after 10 strikeouts. “I've been working hard. This was nice.”

It will be even nicer if it's a precursor of an all-out revival — or resurrection, really — of the bottom of the order.

The Pirates' total of 83 runs isn't just last in the majors. It's the lowest — better sit down for this — of any team in professional baseball. Yeah, all 150 of 'em, from the Savannah Sand Gnats to the Greensboro Grasshoppers. Only the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings are even close, with 91 runs.

Sure, Pedro Alvarez is coming alive, and the rest of the top six are, at worst, near expectations. But here's the rub: The No. 7 spot in the order is batting .179, which ranks 28th of 30 teams. And the No. 8 spot is batting .167, which is dead last and, tellingly, tied to the decimal point with the Pirates' No. 9 spot.

That's entire innings being forfeited at a time.

And that falls almost entirely on Barajas and Barmes.

As Clint Hurdle adroitly put it, “We need to be able to score runs from anywhere in the lineup. Obviously, we've had challenges at 7 and 8. We've got two experienced guys who've fared better. They understand. They're not happy. They know we've got to improve.”

Better believe they know it.

These guys aren't Jeromy Burnitz. They're not the type to casually collect their retirement checks and call it a career. I can tell you — and those who booed — from my interviews with these two players and their teammates and coaches that they are tireless workers trying everything to get right.

Barmes, off to a .159 start, is in the batting cage so often he'll soon seek naming rights.

“If that were the ticket to getting hits,” he said, “I think I'd be doing pretty well right now.”

As it is ...

“The bottom of the lineup comes up a lot of times with a chance to do something, and ... hey, I fall right into that. I haven't done my part.”

Barajas' approach has been little different, except that he's also had to stay upbeat while working with the pitchers.

“I guarantee you, as much as this is driving me crazy, I don't think the guys see it,” he said. “They have no idea how much I want to do better, how unhappy I am with where I'm at. But I've got to put on that face.”

None of us can know if Barajas' moment will be more than exactly that. But I do feel richly confident in predicting that their biggest fan all summer will be one Neal Huntington.

Remember, these were his top position players acquired in free agency this past winter: Barajas for a year at $4 million, Barmes for two years and $10 million.

Recite with me the list of Huntington's free-agent hitting flops: Ramon Vazquez. Chris Gomez. Ryan Church. Bobby Crosby. Eric Hinske. Lyle Overbay. Matt Diaz. Go ahead and count Aki Iwamura, too. His rights were acquired from Tampa Bay as part of an agreement to sign him the same day.

Those eight, plus Barajas, Barmes and the .211 return of Nate McLouth, are all of the outside hitters Huntington has signed on major league terms.

The 11 players' combined contribution over 1,735 at-bats in Pittsburgh: .223 average, 20 home runs, 150 RBI. That's a home run a month, basically.

Their combined cost: $30.35 million, including $7.13 million in buyouts or assumed cost to get rid of Vazquez, Iwamura, Overbay, Hinske and Diaz.

Wasting even more money and more at-bats ... well, let's see what Barajas' blast brings.

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