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Kovacevic: Swing votes could decide it all

| Sunday, March 3, 2013, 11:28 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates pitcher James McDonald throws against the Atlanta Braves at McKechnie Field Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013 in Bradenton, Fla. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

BRADENTON, Fla. — A baseball roster is built of 25 players, and no one or two should be able to make any disproportionate difference on a team over 162 games. The best pitchers still can't help more than once every five days. The best hitters still have to wait for eight others to take their turn.

And yet …

“Oh, I do think I'm a key, definitely,” James McDonald was saying over the weekend in the Pirates' clubhouse. “If I can step up and get back to where I was, now you've got three guys bringing No. 1 stuff.”

He motioned toward the stalls of A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez.

“If you're the Cardinals going into a series, and you see the other side's got A.J., Wandy, J-Mac … you're thinking you're in for a tough series.”

No doubt. If only.

Here's another ...

“I know my role is important,” Pedro Alvarez said. “You can say that about 25 guys, but I've got my part to play.”

He sure does.

In fact, let's label these two guys as the 2013 Pirates' swing votes, if you will. Three reasons:

1. Like a presidential election, they're the Ohio and Florida capable of flipping the entire outcome.

2. The outputs of McDonald and Alvarez are capable of violent fluctuation.

3. They were the consensus choices of Twitter followers — especially McDonald — when I tossed that question out Sunday.

What, you want scientific?

“When they're on, they're two of the best at their positions in the game,” Plum tweep Dom Marchionna opined. “When bad, it's REALLY bad.”

Exactly.

McDonald can be the pitcher he was before the All-Star break last summer, when he went 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA. The one who became the franchise's first pitcher since 1900 to limit opponents to three or fewer earned runs in his first 14 starts. The one who fanned 10 Braves and 11 Nationals.

Or he can be that meltdown version who put up a post-break 7.52 ERA and at times looked so rattled that Clint Hurdle's trips to the mound came with the feel of a mercy killing.

McDonald doesn't run from it, to his credit.

“I think I fell off mentally at times, started doubting,” he said. “When that doubt creeps into your mind, it's over. I'm pretty sure that if you think negatively, it'll probably happen. A lot of times I'd go out there and wouldn't be that convinced in myself. Whereas in the first half, every time I took the mound, I felt like I knew I was going deep. I knew I was about to deal.”

He's pegged at No. 3 again, and here's how pivotal that could be: Burnett and Rodriguez are the 1-2 anchors. The 4-5 are … who can say? Jeff Karstens and Francisco Liriano are hurt. Jonathan Sanchez has been a train wreck here. Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke are kids.

Get the picture?

“I know what I've got to do,” McDonald said. “But that's just like last year. We could have had three solid guys in the second half. But I stumbled, and it cost us.”

One reason to believe McDonald will build back confidence: He's been virtually inseparable from Burnett at this camp.

Alvarez is different: He's visibly gained confidence after booming 30 home runs with 85 RBIs last season, as well as overcoming a slow start to bat .244. But he still struck out 180 times, and his average at cleanup — where he's expected to hit this season — was .140 in 86 at-bats.

It's uplifting to think Alvarez has broken through, but has he?

“Last season was definitely something I can feed off,” Alvarez said. “If anything, it just shows there were some adjustments made and there's still a lot of room for improvement. I'd say it gave me a lot of hope, a good feeling for the future.”

We all know the Alvarez gig by now: Sky's the limit for his power, but more contact is needed.

For fun, I asked a few of his mates how many home runs he'd hit if his average rose even just to .260.

Consensus answer: 40.

Only six men in the majors hit that many last season. The leader was Miguel Cabrera at 44.

Yeah, you'll take that.

You'll also take that imposing run producer in the heart of the order between Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker.

“We have a great lineup. I think we have everything we need,” Alvarez said. “If everyone does their little bit, I think we'll be fine.”

Not if these players aren't two of the best little bits.

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