Marte, Pirates showing improved patience at the plate this season
CHICAGO — At cozy Wrigley Field, it can be tempting for hitters to try to go deep in every at-bat.
The Pirates, however, are not a team of thumpers, and they know it. So in the opener of a three-game set Tuesday, they beat the Chicago Cubs not with home runs but with walks.
After the Cubs tied the game in the third inning, the Pirates scored single runs in the fourth, fifth and eighth innings to pull out a 7-6 win. In two of those innings, walks — including a pair by Starling Marte, of all players — played key roles.
With two outs in the fourth, Marte drew a full-count walk off right-hander Edwin Jackson. After Marte stole second, Travis Snider walked on four pitches. Andrew McCutchen bounced an RBI single up the middle.
Leading off the eighth, Marte fell behind 1-2 against Jason Grimm, then took three straight balls. McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez also walked to load the bases. Russell Martin lifted a sacrifice fly that scored Marte with what turned out to be the decisive run.
The Pirates drew seven walks in the game. Through Tuesday, they led the National League with 31 walks in seven games. Although they're ninth in the league with a .242 batting average, the Pirates rank third with a .342 on-base percentage.
It's a small sample size, but the Pirates have shown improvement in their walk percentage (11.2 percent in 2014, 7.6 percent in 2013) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.59 in 2014, 2.83 in 2013).
“It's a mentality,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Everybody's putting greater value on the importance of an at-bat. If all of us can improve just a little bit on offense, it's going to make us a whole lot better in the long run. We'll be more consistent. The guys are getting dirty with it.”
In that sense, Marte is filthy. He set the tone on Opening Day when he walked in his second plate appearance. He went into Wednesday's late game against the Cubs third on the team with five walks — a stunning 14.2 walk percentage by a guy who walked at a 4.4 percent rate in each of his first two seasons.
“I was focused in the offseason on getting better at that,” Marte said. “I had a good winter (playing) in the Dominican, seeing more pitches. Now I think my swing is better. I swing at strikes. If I wait for my pitch, I'll be a better hitter.”
Last year, Marte did not draw his fifth walk until April 25, the 21st game of the season, and he had four two-walk games overall. He's on pace to surpass his previous numbers by the All-Star break.
“Starling's trying to be ready to hit instead of just thinking he's going to hit,” Hurdle said. “A lot of the time when hitters chase, it's because they just want to hit more than they want to walk. You're geared up to hit instead of (thinking), ‘I'm ready to hit, but I want to see the ball and get it up a little bit.' He laid off some pitches that we've seen him swing at before.”
Marte is not the only one showing more patience at the plate. The surprise runner-up in the Pirates' walk leaders so far is Alvarez. He had taken six free passes going into Wednesday's game, including three Saturday against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“We've seen Pedro lay off a lot of balls that are down,” Hurdle said. “It's an overall team mentality that we're trying to improve upon. Look at the on-base percentage. The walks are playing.”
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