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Jaso, McCutchen excel at top of Pirates lineup

| Sunday, March 20, 2016, 6:30 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen warms up on deck next to lead-off hitter John Jaso at the start of a game against the Blue Jays on Sunday, March 20, 2016, at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, Fla. McCutchen batted second in the lineup.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen hits a two-run homer in front of Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin during the first inning Sunday, March 20, 2016, at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, Fla. McCutchen batted second in the lineup.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen is greeted by manager Clint Hurdle after hitting a two-run homer during the first inning against the Blue Jays Sunday, March 20, 2016, at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen rounds the bases after hitting a two-run homer during the first inning against the Blue Jays Sunday, March 20, 2016, at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, Fla. McCutchen batted second in the lineup.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Pirates manager Clint Hurdle perhaps offered a sneak preview of his opening day lineup Sunday, and it was a pleasing sight to star Andrew McCutchen.

In the first inning John Jaso, batting leadoff, drew a walk.McCutchen strode to the plate; he batted second for the second time this spring, and in a second straight start.

McCutchen lifted his team-best fourth home run of the spring over the right field wall against Toronto Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada in the Pirates' 3-2 loss.

Jaso walked three times Sunday with McCutchen in the on-deck circle, a welcome sight to McCutchen. Only Paul Goldschmidt (164 plate appearances) batted with no runners on and two outs more often than McCutchen (158) last season.

Hurdle is experimenting with different lineups this spring with the idea of improving lineup construction and efficiency. He seems to be leaning toward opening with Jaso in the leadoff spot, electing to prize on-base skills over speed at the top of the lineup, and batting McCutchen second, where he hasn't hit since 2010.

The concept is rooted in math; no position in the order comes up more often with two outs and no one on than the No. 3 spot.

“I like it,” said Hurdle of the Jaso-McCutchen 1-2 punch. “I like what I'm seeing out of it.”

Hurdle said the concept of McCutchen batting second goes beyond RBI opportunities.

“I do think the one point I'm really looking forward to seeing is the run scoring opportunities for Andrew,” Hurdle said. “Everyone is focused on RBIs. Regardless where the RBI opportunities go, or don't go, I really believe he's going to score more runs than he's scored ever before.”

Jaso, who will platoon at first base, raised his spring on-base mark to .458.

Since 2013, Jaso ranks 30th in baseball in on-base percentage at .364 (minimum 800 at-bats) and is 36th in walk rate (11.6 percent).

“He seems to have an internal clock for it,” Hurdle said of Jaso hitting first. “You look at the at-bats, the focus, the intent, it's real. He'll see pitches and … swing early in the count. He has a good eye.”

Hurdle noted last week the Pirates quantitative analysts and other studies having shown the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 lineup positions are most important, with on-base prized early in a lineup.

Said Jaso: “When I was (leading off) with (Tampa Bay), it was kind of a good thing because I was able to get on base a lot … and then (Evan) Longoria was right behind him. It kind of set the stage for Longo there. You see how the synergy works going down the lineup. McCutchen is there instead of Longo. That's not a bad spot.”

Hurdle said once he decides upon a lineup spot for McCutchen, he does not expect to move him from that position often. McCutchen has not started in a lineup slot other than the third or fourth since 2011.

“There's things you may not like personally, but overall, from a team standpoint, if it helps, then I'm for it,” McCutchen said of hitting second. “I don't know if we're going to make it an everyday thing … If it (is), then I don't think it should surprise anyone.”

David Freese hit third Sunday, followed by Starling Marte in the cleanup spot. Gregory Polanco batted fifth, where he breaks up the middle of a right-handed heavy lineup. Josh Harrison batted sixth.

By hitting McCutchen higher in the lineup, Hurdle thinks it will free up Polanco and Harrison to be more aggressive baserunners.

“I like the freedom the other guys are going to have underneath, with more opportunity to run for Harrison and Polanco,” Hurdle said. “There's always going to be a little trepidation to run and make an out in front of Andrew when he's at the plate.”

Michael Morse served as designated hitter Sunday and batted seventh, followed by Jordy Mercer and backup catcher Chris Stewart.

“I want to see it play out,” said Hurdle of the lineup. “When we decide to go with what we are going to go with, we are going to give it some time.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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