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Kovacevic: Morneau makes lineup whole

| Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, 9:59 p.m.
Pirates first baseman Justin Morneau singles during the sixth inning against the Cardinals on Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Justin Morneau singles during the sixth inning against the Cardinals on Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, at PNC Park.

Wasn't much fun to be found at PNC Park on Sunday, certainly not what it could have been with Justin Morneau's debut, a chance to sweep St. Louis, the 18th sellout and so much more potentially on tap.

Alas, Cardinals 7, Pirates 2.

Kris Johnson got creamed, and the National League's most potent offense rose up after being held to a solitary run since Tuesday.

For the home team, as a dejected Johnson put it, “It was one of those days.”

Indeed. So consider this instead: Right after the loss, these Pirates packed up for a nine-game trip, beginning with the Labor Day matinee in Milwaukee, and the cargo will include the first truly top-to-bottom lineup we haven't seen in these parts since the last time Jim Leyland penciled Andy Van Slyke, Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla onto the same card in 1991.

Don't cite the 1992 lineup, which didn't have a true leadoff man between Gary Redus and Alex Cole, or a quality No. 5 with Jeff King batting .231 after Bonilla's departure.

Don't cite 2003, either, even though that team opened like this: Kenny Lofton, Jason Kendall, Brian Giles, Aramis Ramirez, Randall Simon, Reggie Sanders, Pokey Reese, Jack Wilson. The infamous salary dump that summer sold off Lofton and Ramirez.

Throw out 1999, too, even though that team hit a franchise-record 177 home runs for all kinds of reasons that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa could explain.

Now, give this a shot, presuming full health:

Player, Position, Avg., HR, RBI

Starling Marte, LF, .282, 11, 33

Neil Walker, 2B, .262, 9, 41

Andrew McCutchen, CF, .317, 17, 74

Pedro Alvarez, 3B, .232, 32, 86

Marlon Byrd, RF, .288, 22, 76

Morneau, 1B, .260, 17, 74

Russell Martin, C, .243, 13, 51

Jordy Mercer, SS, .271, 6, 22

It's not spectacular, but it's as solid as any lineup in more than two decades.

Don't misunderstand: This isn't my ideal batting order. I'm working off Clint Hurdle's precedents, notably the one Sunday. I'd also welcome an occasionally different look when facing lefties.

But that's not the point. Rather, it's that there really isn't a soft spot.

And that, above all, is the beauty of what Neal Huntington achieved with the acquisitions of Byrd and Morneau: He focused on the two positions with the most room to grow, and he hit both out of the park.

To wit:

The Pirates' OPS — on-base plus slugging percentage, an outstanding stat — for right fielders before Byrd was .670, which ranked 29th of 30 teams. Byrd's OPS is .851, a huge jump of 181 points.

The Pirates' OPS for first basemen was .771, a ranking of 13th. On the surface, then, Morneau's .741 OPS looks like a downgrade. But small sample sizes apply in a pennant race, and Morneau's .836 OPS in August — fueled by nine home runs — was eighth at his position. More important, the Pirates' evaluators — who probably haven't even whiffed on a Jeopardy answer the past 10 months — saw enough in that swing to believe it's sustainable.

So does he.

“I've started hitting a ball the way you'd expect a corner infielder to,” Morneau was telling me Sunday after debuting 1 for 3 with a walk, a sharply struck single and a zinged lineout to deep center. “I made some adjustments with my hands, but the biggest thing has been laying off bad pitches and being really aggressive with good ones.”

Well, that and nerves. He spent 11 years in the Twin Cities and won his 2006 American League MVP there.

“Yeah, I was looking around, and it seemed a little weird. But once I got the first at-bat, it was better.”

Better than his idol, anyway.

“Larry Walker sent me a couple texts last night,” Morneau said of the fellow Canadian and former Colorado slugger, similarly acquired in 2004 by St. Louis for the stretch run. “He let me know he struck out in his first at-bat with the Cardinals and got a standing ovation. He said, ‘Try to top that.' ”

Does 3-unassisted count?

“Ha! You know, I've learned a lot from Larry over the years. And I'll get this, too. ... Honestly, this team is so good I just want to blend in and be part of it.”

Which he can do best on this trip. In the hockey parlance known to all Canadians — Morneau, sadly, is a devoted Canucks fan — it's all about bonding with the boys.

“Perfect timing. Do some dinners with the boys and stuff. It's been crazy the past day and a half. This will help.”

So will Morneau.

By the way, Walker and those Cardinals went on to win the pennant. He was just the piece they needed.

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