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Morneau's bat finds some spark in Pirates' Game 2 win

| Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, 9:36 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Justin Morneau doubles during the third inning against the Cardinals on Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, in Game 2 of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Justin Morneau celebrates with teammates in the dugout after scoring during the third inning against the Cardinals on Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, in Game 2 of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Justin Morneau celebrates with Pedro Alvarez after Alvarez hit a two-run homer during the third inning against the Cardinals Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, in Game 2 of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Justin Morneau doubles during the third inning against the Cardinals Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, in Game 2 of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

ST. LOUIS – For all anyone knows, the Pirates would have kept running Justin Morneau out to first base game after game, no matter the scope of his slump.

But probably not.

Even a brief slump gets magnified in Major League Baseball's playoffs, and Morneau's hadn't been brief: Since being acquired from the Minnesota Twins Aug. 31, he had batted .260 with only four extra-base hits – all doubles – and three RBI in 77 at-bats. To boot, he took a 3-for-17 slide into the playoffs, then mustered two singles in his first eight at-bats.

If that sounds like it was a swell time for a breakout, imagine how it felt to him.

“This was good,” Morneau said Friday after a 2-for-5 in the Pirates' 7-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 2 of the National League Division Series. “At this time of year, all that matters is winning. Obviously, if I hit, it'll give us a better chance to win, but yeah, that felt big.”

Morneau opened with a line-drive out, singled the other way and crushed a double off the center-field fence in his first three plate appearances. It wasn't that still-awaited home run in black and gold, but it almost surely was enough to fend off a benching in favor of Garrett Jones and/or Gaby Sanchez.

More important, it offered at least a sign that the sizzling bat the Pirates acquired – Morneau hit .293 with nine home runs and 21 RBI for the Twins in August – could be making a cyclical comeback.

“Yeah, he's been working hard,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He hasn't gotten in a groove, by any means. He hasn't gotten the ball in the air at times. There are always challenges in this game.”

Hurdle stressed his stance that Morneau's challenges have largely stemmed from coming to a new team – after 11 years in Minnesota – and trying too hard.

“There might have been times when he was pushing the pedal,” Hurdle said. “Doesn't matter how many years you have, it's a different situation. You want them to know you're here to make a difference. I think he is finding a better rhythm at the plate, and you saw some of that today. He's going to help us. He already has in many other ways, and his bat is a big part of it.”

There had been talk early this season of Morneau's bat speed slowing, not being close to his 2006 MVP season. Hurdle rejects that, even with the missing power.

“We broke down his entire season, and we saw what he was able to do in August. And I mean, he hit pitches. He hit velocity. He hit all of it.”

The question remains: What about cleanup?

Hurdle hasn't offered any hints on that front – managers aren't about to share advance lineups in October – but precedent would strongly suggest the heart of the order will remain as is: Andrew McCutchen, followed by Morneau, Marlon Byrd, then Pedro Alvarez.

There might be a temptation to bump up Alvarez, who has homered in the first two games of this series, but Alvarez has shown a tendency in the past to be disrupted by lineup moves.

Morneau's thoughts?

“Obviously, Pedro and Byrd have both been swinging the bats well, Pedro with a lot of power,” he said. “What I'm thinking right now is to get on base for those guys.”

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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