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Alvarez leads Pirates past Reds in series finale

| Thursday, June 20, 2013, 4:15 p.m.
The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez, left, is congratulated by Garrett Jones after they defeated the Cincinnati Reds 5-3 in a baseball game, Thursday, June 20, 2013, in Cincinnati. Alvarez had three hits, one a home run, and drove in all the Pirates runs.
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The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez drives in a run in the third inning against the Reds on Thursday, June 20, 2013. Alvarez drove in all five Pirates runs.
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The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez rounds the bases after homering in the sixth inning against the Reds on Thursday, June 20, 2013.
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The Pirates' Tony Watson (left) and Michael McKenry celebrate after their victory over the Reds on Thursday, June 20, 2013.
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The Pirates' Andrew McCutchen tosses sunflower seeds into a cup along with teammates during Thursday's game against the Reds on June 20, 2013.
Reds manager Dusty Baker takes reliever Alfredo Simon out in the seventh inning against the Pirates on Thursday, June 20, 2013.
The Pirates' Garrett Jones reacts after striking out against Reds starter Homer Bailey in the fifth inning Thursday, June 20, 2013.
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Pirates catcher Michael McKenry waits for the throw as the Reds' Shin-Soo Choo scores in the first inning Thursday, June 20, 2013.
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker tags out the Reds' Joey Votto on a stolen-base attempt in the first inning Thursday, June 20, 2013.
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Pirates reliever Tony Watson pitches against the Reds on Thursday, June 20, 2013. He went the final two innings and earned the save.
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Reds center fielder Shin-Soo Choo jumps to make a catch against the Pirates on Thursday, June 20, 2013.
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The Pirates' Brandon Cumpton pitches against the Reds on Thursday, June 20, 2013.
The Reds' Shin-Soo Choo dives safely back to first as the Pirates' Gaby Sanchez catches a pickoff attempt in the first inning Thursday, June 20, 2013.
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Pirates first baseman Gaby Sanchez can't make the catch as the Reds' Shin-Soo Choo reaches Thursday, June 20, 2013.
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Pirates manager Clint Hurdle watches Thursday's game against the Reds on June 20, 2013.
Reds center fielder Shin-Soo Choo catches a fly ball hit by the Pirates' Michael McKenry in the fourth inning Thursday, June 20, 2013.
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The Reds' Homer Bailey delivers against the Pirates on Thursday, June 20, 2013.
The Reds' Joey Votto gets a hit off Pirates starting pitcher Brandon Cumpton to drive in a run in the first inning Thursday, June 20, 2013.
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The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez hits a three-run double to break a 2-2 tie in the seventh inning against the Reds on Thursday, June 20, 2013.
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The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez (left) celebrates with Gaby Sanchez after homering in the sixth inning against the Reds on Thursday, June 20, 2013.

CINCINNATI — Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is perplexed by where to bat Pedro Alvarez.

After the Pirates' 5-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday at Great American Ball Park, Alvarez might be making Hurdle's lineup decisions easier.

Alvarez went 3 for 4, including his 16th home run of the season, and drove in all five of the team's runs as the Pirates earned a split in the four-game series with their NL Central rival.

His leadoff home run to right-center field tied the score at 2 in the sixth, and his three-run double off reliever Tony Cingrani in the seventh proved to be the game's decisive swing, plating Bryan Morris, Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen.

“There are times when you have to take your mechanics and everything else, and you throw it out the window and you compete. He was able to do it,” Hurdle said. “We needed a big day from a number of people, and Pedro was one of them. It was great to see.”

Hurdle has pondered what to do with Alvarez, who possesses power Hurdle says few do but who also reaches base at a below-average rate.

Alvarez has proven to be something of an enigma: Many of his plate appearances frustrate, with too many swings and misses. But when he connects, the results are often significant.

“I've done three different (computer) system analyses to find out the most optimal spot to hit him in,” Hurdle said. “The hard part is, where do you hit him because he doesn't extend a lot of rallies. It's homers, there's not a lot of doubles, some singles and homers. The OBP is .270, .280. How do you maximize the swing of the bat when you get it?”

Hurdle moved up Alvarez to fifth in the lineup Thursday. Ideally, the organization would like the third baseman to bat cleanup.

The way Alvarez is hitting in June, the Pirates might want to maximize his plate appearances. The month has been the best of his career.

Alvarez has a .965 OPS in June, a three-week stretch that has included six home runs and 17 RBI. His emergence comes at a critical time for a team in need of run production.

Hurdle said a mechanical adjustment has played a role in Alvarez's improvement. Alvarez is letting the ball travel longer, contacting it in the strike zone, and has a more level swing plane.

“By staying in the zone longer than he was previously, he got the barrel to both balls,” Hurdle said. “He can hit a ball out of any ballpark just squaring it up.”

Alvarez said his torrid June is more related to his mental approach.

“A lot of times it's not something mechanical,” he said. “Mechanics help, but a lot of the times it's just things are approach-driven. You can get in your own head sometimes.”

Alvarez's homer off starter Homer Bailey traveled 417 feet into the right-center field seats.

Alvarez entered 9 for 54 against left-handed pitching, but in the seventh, against side-arming lefty Cingrani, he pulled a fastball down the line on an 0-1 count to clear the bases.

The Pirates needed the offense.

Hurdle announced before the game that top relievers Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon and Justin Wilson were unavailable due to workload.

But starter Brandon Cumpton did what the Pirates needed: He kept the ball out of the air. In just his second career start, Cumpton induced seven groundouts and just two flyouts over five innings. He allowed two runs, one earned.

Bryan Morris (4-2) gave up a run in the seventh but recorded the win, and Tony Watson pitched a scoreless eighth and ninth to earn his second save.

“After a challenging loss (Wednesday),” Hurdle said, “to come back with a rookie fifth starter against Bailey in their home park … this is a good series for our team.”

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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