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Pirates getting whiff of history

| Sunday, May 27, 2012, 12:30 a.m.
The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez strikes out against Astros pitcher Bud Norris at PNC Park on May 11, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
Christopher Horner
The Pirates' Garrett Jones strikes out swinging Sunday April 8, 2012 against the Phillies at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

The Pirates may be last in attendance in the National League, but you can still find plenty of fans.

Just look in the box score.

When the Pirates struck out only eight times in a 3-1 loss to the Mets on Wednesday, the free-swinging, light-hitting club snapped a dubious streak that was nearing historic proportions.

The Pirates were threatening to become only the seventh team since 1918 to strike out 10-plus times in six consecutive games. No team in the past 90 years has fanned 10-plus times seven games in a row.

But give these Pirates some time. It's only Memorial Day weekend.

“It's hard to explain,” said Garrett Jones, who is striking out about once every four plate appearances. “Whether you are going up there too aggressive or being under aggressive, there's a fine line of seeing the ball and getting a good pitch to hit and hitting it.”

Here are some of the ugly truths through Friday's games:

• The Pirates have struck out an MLB-leading 382 times and are on pace for 1,375 strikeouts, which would tie the 2010 Marlins for third-most in major league history behind the 2010 Diamondbacks (1,529 Ks) and '01 Brewers (1,399).

• They are striking out on 24.1 percent of their plate appearances, which would rank second all-time behind only the Mark Reynolds-led '10 Diamondbacks (24.7 percent).

• They have struck out 17 times in a nine-inning game twice this season — the same number as the previous 125 years of Pirates baseball combined.

During last week's “fan-fest,” the Pirates whiffed 41 times in a three-game series in Detroit and 23 times in the first two games against the visiting Mets. Whether they were making Max Scherzer (15 strikeouts) look like Nolan Ryan or flailing as knuckleballer R.A. Dickey racked up a career-high 11 strikeouts, the scorebook was filled with Ks.

The Pirates were third in Major League Baseball last year with 1,308 strikeouts, setting a club record in the unwelcome category for the second year in a row. They don't have many strikeout kings this year — Pedro Alvarez is the only batter in the top 20 in the NL in strikeouts — just a lot of consistent whiffs.

“I can't really say what I attribute it to,” said Josh Harrison, who has whiffed only 11 times in 72 plate appearances. “A lot of guys are still trying to come into their own and get comfortable. When you're not comfortable, sometimes you are going to chase pitches or let the good ones go. You get overanxious. It's one of those things where guys sometimes are putting too much pressure on themselves.”

While most high-strikeout teams are free swingers with good power numbers, the Pirates aren't getting much bang for their buck. They have hit 35 home runs this season, 22nd in the majors. When the Diamondbacks shattered the major league record with 1,529 strikeouts in 2010, they had four players with at least 25 home runs and finished sixth in the majors with 180 home runs. The Marlins, who led the league in strikeouts in 2007 and '08, finished in the top five in home runs both years.

Other record-breaking strikeout teams (the '01 Brewers and the 109-loss 1996 Tigers) were in the top 10 in the majors in home runs.

The Pirates as a team are striking out as much as Willie Stargell (seventh all-time) while hitting home runs as frequently as Joe Randa (one HR per 44 AB).

Manager Clint Hurdle, the hitting coach for the 2010 AL champion Texas Rangers, and hitting coach Gregg Ritchie want the batters to relax at the plate.

“We are just trying to square up the fastball and hit the ball to the big part of the field,” Hurdle said. “We've all gone through periods of overcomplicating things and trying too hard and trying to do too much. We are trying to settle them down. See it good and put a good swing on it.”

John Grupp is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jgrupp@tribweb.com or 412-320-7930.

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