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Pirates notebook: Morneau remains in cleanup spot

| Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 7:24 p.m.
Getty Images
The Pirates' Justin Morneau hits a single in the top of the sixth inning against the Brewers on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, in Milwaukee.
Getty Images
The Pirates' Justin Morneau hits a double in the top of the third inning against the Brewers on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in Milwaukee.

MILWAUKEE — Last week's trades resulted in a new cleanup hitter for the Pirates on Wednesday.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle elected to keep newly acquired Justin Morneau in the cleanup spot, even after incumbent No. 4 hitter Pedro Alvarez returned to the lineup Wednesday. Alvarez batted sixth against Brewers right-hander Wily Peralta.

In moving Morneau into the cleanup spot, the Pirates trade power for better contact. Alvarez has 32 home runs and 86 RBI this season, compared to Morneau's 17 home runs and 74 RBI. But Alvarez has struck out in 32.1 percent of his plate appearances; Morneau has struck out at a 17.8 percent rate.

Hurdle said this could be the look of the lineup going forward against right-handed pitching.

“I think it's an added level of experience, and it's a different skill set that I think connects the dots a little more solidly through the middle,” Hurdle said. “If Morneau wasn't here, Pedro hits fourth. Morneau is here. I think we set up a little bit better. You don't have the same swing-and-miss, you don't have quite the same power. But I think from a hit-ability angle, and the quality of at-bats, it makes more sense to go that way right now.”

Morneau is also the hot hand; he homered nine times and drove in 21 runs in August. Alvarez batted .208 last month.

“There's nothing really specific,” Morneau said of his hot streak. “I was just trying to do too much in July. I think, in August, I made a small adjustment with my hands and just started to feel more comfortable. For me, when I'm going good, it's when I'm being aggressive in the zone. It's one of those things where you try to do less and it ends up being a little better.”

Morneau went 3 for 3 in his first game Tuesday as the Pirates' No. 4 hitter.

Route 66

That lineup shift wasn't the only change regarding Morneau on Wednesday. The Pirates' new first baseman also switched jersey numbers, trading in No. 36 for No. 66. The number is not a tribute to any particular hockey player — say, Mario Lemieux — though Morneau is a hockey fan. Rather it represents the doubling of his old jersey number — 33 — with the Twins. The number is off limits with the Pirates; it's the retired number of Honus Wagner.

McCutchen graces SI cover

Center fielder Andrew McCutchen appears on the national cover of the Sept. 9 issue of Sports Illustrated. It is the second SI cover for the Pirates this season. Pirates closer Jason Grilli was featured on the July 22 cover and was injured the same day — more evidence for believers of the SI cover jinx. Grilli was the first Pirate to be featured on the cover since Barry Bonds on May 4, 1992.

Playoff tickets

The Pirates announced Wednesday they are making a limited number of playoff tickets available to fans through a special online-only presale. Beginning Wednesday, fans can register at pirates.com/postseason for an opportunity to buy postseason tickets at PNC Park. The registration period for the right to buy wild-card and Division Series tickets ends Sept. 12.

Wandy is pain-free

Rehabbing left-hander Wandy Rodriguez (elbow tendinitis) threw a bullpen session Tuesday. Hurdle reported Rodriguez felt no pain during or after throwing.

“It was his most effective bullpen outing,” Hurdle said. “He felt great. He's in a very good place.”

Rodriguez, who has dealt with lingering discomfort in his elbow, is scheduled to make a three-inning rehab start for Indianapolis on Friday.

The Pirates are hoping Rodriguez can return and be a candidate for their playoff roster if they advance into October. Rodriguez, who hasn't pitched since early June, is not likely to be able to build the stamina to return as a starter.

Pepper games

Left fielder Starling Marte (right hand) was expected to take swings with both hands Wednesday for the first time since being placed on the disabled list. “I think it's slowly improving. He's not been able to put the bat in both hands and take aggressive swings as of yet,” Hurdle said. … John Buck, not Tony Sanchez, was in the starting lineup to catch Francisco Liriano on Wednesday. “Buck is a proven major league catcher,” Hurdle said. “We want to make sure we get a good look.” ... Right-hander James McDonald (shoulder) was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis. Hurdle said he is not a candidate for the postseason roster.

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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