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Biertempfel: Random thoughts, observations

| Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 9:39 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker slips on a James Neal Penguins jersey at his locker before departing PNC Park for a road trip in May.

A few random thoughts and observations:

• The '50s-themed musical “Grease” inspired the dress code for the Pirates' most recent road trip. The players, coaches and staff wore white T-shirts, blue jeans and black sneakers.

It was slapped together in a hurry, though, so some of the players' clothing choices — such as designer jeans and Air Jordans — did not exactly a fit the doo-wop era. There were no leather jackets, and nobody combed their hair in an Elvis-style pompadour.

Maybe that messed up the mojo, which could help explain why the Pirates went 1-5 on their swing through Denver and St. Louis.

“After that trip, I'm pretty sure the ‘Grease' theme is out,” second baseman Neil Walker said. “And it's never coming back.”

Usually, the players must dress in a coat and tie when the team travels. Even a rookie just called up from the minors is expected to have a suit.

When manager Clint Hurdle decides to relax the dress code, the players collectively come up with the theme. In May, when the Stanley Cup playoffs were going on, everyone wore Penguins jerseys for the trip to Philadelphia, St. Louis and Milwaukee.

For the swing through Cincinnati, Washington and Miami last month, the Pirates opted for a beach theme. Gaby Sanchez, a Miami native, capped his look with a stylish fedora. But a few of his teammates went for more of an, um, relaxed look with clashing stripes and floral patterns.

The Pirates went 5-4 in their hockey gear and 5-5 while traveling in Tommy Bahama.

“Traveling gets old through the course of 162 games,” Walker said. “Dressing in suits gets old. Fortunately, we have a manager who's all in for dressing relaxed and having fun with it.”

• Walker changed the look of his bat after the All-Star break. The barrel of his Old Hickory NW1 model, which used to be a natural wood color, now is a flat gray. The handle, as usual, is all black.

“I've used the same bat model my entire career,” Walker said. “But sometimes you want to change up the visual effects. I've tried them all, including white and all black. Sometimes they work. If they don't, you throw them away.”

The gray bats seem to have plenty of hits in them. Since the break, Walker is batting .301 with an .807 OPS — a significant improvement over his numbers from the first half of the season.

“This one's been pretty good to me, so I'm going to stick with it,” Walker said. “People on Twitter and stuff have said, ‘Are you using a different bat?' It's funny that people are watching that closely.”

• The numbers show Garrett Jones is a better hitter when he's a right fielder than when he's a first baseman. In 322 games at first, Jones hit .253 with a .751 OPS. Over 256 games in right, he hit .262 with an .819 OPS.

Yet Jones believes the stats don't tell the whole story.

“I think it's basically coincidence,” he said. “I feel comfortable at both spots, and I don't think about my defense when I'm hitting. For whatever reason, the outfield numbers are better. I can't explain it.”

Sometimes, though, Jones' actions indicate he's better suited for the outfield. In a recent game, Jones was stationed at first base and tried to throw out a runner at second. The ball instead hit the umpire square in his back.

“I don't think first base is as comfortable a position for him as right field,” Hurdle said. “There's more footwork involved. Moving around the outfield seems to be more comfortable for him.”

Jones said it's easy to underestimate how tricky it can be to play first base.

“You're constantly in motion,” Jones said. “When you're holding runners on, you're getting low a lot and getting off the bag. When you're playing in and that big, lefty hitter is up, you've got to be ready for anything. In the outfield, there's that distance from home plate, so you have a little more time to react to things. It's a different feel. Coming to the infield from the outfield, everything seems to move at a faster pace.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib

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