Alvarez powers Pirates past Cardinals
Looking the other way is key for Pedro Alvarez.
Ask Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson, ask manager Clint Hurdle, and they will say if Alvarez better employs the whole field, if he more often focuses on left field, he could stay on off-speed pitches better and unlock his potential.
What is the former No. 2 overall pick's ultimate upside? Hurdle said over the winter it could be similar to that of Baltimore's Chris Davis, who went from an all-or-nothing slugger to an MVP candidate last season.
Alvarez gave a glimpse of that potential Friday in a 12-2, series-opening victory against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Alvarez recorded his eighth career multi-home run game. His first home run went well over the left-center field wall in PNC Park, and his second came off a changeup, a pitch that has given Alvarez fits his entire career.
Just three of Alvarez's 36 home runs last season went to the opposite field. But in the second inning, Cardinals starter Shelby Miller left a fastball out over the plate, and Alvarez crushed it well over the 383-foot sign in left.
In the fourth, Alvarez nearly lofted a changeup out of the stadium, a shot that landed 448 feet away in right-center. Alvarez was the seventh-worst hitter in baseball against changeups last seasons, according to Fangraphs.com.
Alvarez tied for the NL home run lead last season, but he hit .233 and struck out in almost a third of his plate appearances. The Pirates believe Alvarez showed signs of maturing as a hitter this spring that have carried into the season.
“The last five or six at-bats before tonight got our attention,” Hurdle said. “He finished up the extra-inning game with a sharp single to left. He drove a ball to the wall that was caught. The first couple at-bats (Thursday) he squared a ball up to right-center, lined out again to left field. He's been patient. He's been stubborn in his approach. It paid off.”
Also noteworthy was that both of his home runs came with two strikes. Last season, Alvarez hit .115 with two strikes. He finished with three RBIs and added a steal.
Alvarez, who did not speak to reporters, led a 16-hit Pirates night to support an efficient Gerrit Cole, who was making his first start of the season.
Cole's fastball velocity was there, touching 99 mph in the first inning. But Cole's curveball, the pitch that allowed him velocity separation and to emerge as the Pirates' best starter in September and October, was not in late-2013 form.
Cole generated just six swings and misses, though he struck out Kolten Wong with a sharp breaker to end the seventh.
Cole threw a hanging 83 mph changeup in the fifth that Matt Carpenter slashed over the Clemente Wall for a two-run homer, cutting the Pirates' lead to 3-2.
Still, Cole's line was solid. He allowed two runs and six hits and walked two in seven innings, striking out three.
“I started to find a little more feel,” Cole said of the later innings. “It was a struggle getting the ball where I wanted it to go.”
The other 23-year-old, second-year starting pitcher Friday continued to struggle with the Pirates.
Miller entered with an 0-4 record and 5.32 ERA against the Pirates and allowed five runs, six hits and three home runs in 5 1⁄3 innings. In addition to his troubles with Alvarez, Miller also surrendered a fourth-inning home run to Travis Ishikawa in the fourth, Ishikawa's first major league homer since May 15, 2012.
“I just didn't have anything going tonight,” Miller said. “I'll own up to not pitching very good.”
The Pirates also beat up the Cardinals bullpen as Gaby Sanchez, Russell Martin, Travis Snider and Jose Tabata added RBI singles. An Andrew McCutchen two-run triple gave the Pirates an 11-2 lead in the eighth, as the Pirates continued their run of dominating the Cardinals on their home field.