Pirates Notebook: Bucco Bats Need to Step Up

The Pirates have had a tough start to the season, facing some pretty talented starting pitchers. Of the four they’ve faced, three of them have won a Cy Young Award. Despite seeing pitchers duels so far in 2012, the club has managed to win two of the four games. The Pirates’ starting pitching has given quality starts, but the bats need to step up.

“They’re gong to have to find a way to score more runs without a shadow of a doubt,” General Manager Neal Huntington said. “We’re going to have to hit the pitches that are there to hit.”

Left-hander Erik Bedard dueled Roy Halladay on Opening Day, and Jeff Karstens followed with another solid performance as well matching Cliff Lee. The four starters have combined to allow just five runs over a combined 25.0 innings.

The Pirates have lost their two games by just one run. Starting pitching will carry a team, but the lineup needs to find a way to plate more runs. There isn’t much margin for error.

“I think our guys have realized that it’s Halladay and Lee, but they realize there are pitches to hit. And the best pitchers, you can’t miss them,” Huntington said. “We missed a handful of pitches. They are good pitchers, and no doubt they pitched well, but we still had some pitches to hit. We’ve got to square those up. We’ve got to stay within our approach and sell out to it. If you’re going to look a certain way, and you get a pitch that is not what you’re looking for, even though it’s a strike, you can’t swing at it.  And that takes some maturity. That takes some discipline. Our guys are getting there, they’re learning that.”

The Pirates faced another tough lefty on Tuesday, and like the previous games, the club was in a pitchers duel. Right-hander Kevin Correia and Kershaw each allowed just one run over their starts. The Dodgers Andre Ethier, however, came through in the eighth inning with a solo home run to lead the Dodgers to 2-1 win. Only Alex Presley had multiple hits on the day (2), as the club combined for 10 strikeouts. The lone run scored came in the 7th inning when Matt Hague picked up his second career RBI with a ground-out to short.

“You’ve got to grind out at-bats against these pitchers,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “It’s almost like playoff baseball…Teams don’t do a lot of damage against those pitchers. We’ve got to get good at-bats…All in all, we’re not getting a lot to hit. We know we’ve got to step up our game offensively.”

Over their first four games, the Pirates have combined to score eight runs. The club will face right-hander Chad Billingsley on Wednesday, another tough arm over their nine game road trip on the West Coast.

“There were times this spring where we put up some runs against some pretty good pitching,” Huntington said. “We also had stretches where we struggled to score. It might just be the youth. [Andrew] McCutchen, [Jose] Tabata, Presley at the top of the lineup, [Neil] Walker is still a young hitter. They’re going to be the core of our offense. Instead of staying through a fastball that’s away from you, and driving it to right-center field, we try and do too much to it and end up pulling it, and rolling over it. There’s no doubt that those four are going to drive us, and we’re gong to need them to step up and do some things.”

Bedard Looking to Prove Himself 

Left-hander Erik Bedard took the mound on Opening Day at PNC Park on Thursday and was very sharp in his Pirates debut. In fact, Bedard and Cy Young Award Winner Roy Halladay had a pitchers duel going through seven innings in Pittsburgh.

Bedard allowed just one run on six hits over seven innings. He walked one and struck out four while tossing 81 pitches, 58 strikes.

“This isn’t an overpowering staff,” Catcher Rod Barajas said of the rotation. “It’s not a staff where you’re going to have two guys strike out 200. But these are guys that know how to pitch. The first two guys that I caught, they located their pitches, they work in and out, they add velocity, subtract velocity. They do what you expect a pitcher to do. The performances were great. Erik pitched well enough to win the game, but unfortunately we weren’t able to score runs.”

The 33-year-old signed a one-year deal with Pittsburgh over the offseason. Bedard made 24 starts combined with the Seattle Mariners and Boston Red Sox during the 2011 season. It marked the first time since 2008 that Bedard had made as many trips to the mound having battled shoulder injuries for several seasons.

The lefty is looking to prove himself again.

“He understands the significance of this season for him individually,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “But he also wanted to go somewhere where he could make a difference, where he thought it would be benefit to him to be around a certain group of individuals in a certain environment that he felt he could find invigorating. It’s something to build upon. He wanted to be a Pirate. Very important.”

“I think his stuff played out the way we anticipated it playing out. He’s got the ability to work the ball backwards and forwards, the fastball-changeup combination. He’s got the ability to work side to side with the two-seamer slider. He works up and down. He reads swings really well. Plays off the hitters adrenaline from time to time.”

“He has very good command of the running game, which is just as important to be able to throw in a slide step. Not a traditional leg up delivery, to disrupt hitters timing, it’s almost what we call an ambush pitch. Most guys can throw that pitch with the fastball. He can throw all his pitches off that, the slide step. He’s a craftsman. He pays attention. He has that air about him, there’s a fierce competitor inside Erik. Nobody doesn’t want to do well. He’s in a position where he wants to do well for all the right reasons — for himself, and for our club. ”

Bedard will be making his second start of the young 2012 season on Wednesday in Los Angeles against the Dodgers. The 33-year-old has a career 1.79 ERA over 19 starts against National League teams.

“They all understand their roles,” Hurdle said. “They understand the importance that the pitching is going to take you. It takes you good place, it takes you bad places. This is the way the game is constructed. It’s never going to change from that angle. Good pitching beats good hitting. Our guys have something to prove.”

Cruz has Great Start in ‘Pen

Right-hander Juan Cruz has had been impressive out of the ‘pen for the Pirates so far this season. Cruz has made two scoreless appearances against the Philadelphia Phillies at PNC Park. And against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday, Cruz added another scoreless appearance to his resume. On Opening Day, he allowed one hit over an inning, while punching out two.

During his last outing, Cruz took the mound in the 10th inning in the Pirates eventual 5-4 walkoff win against the Phillies. After retiring his first two batters, the right-hander gave up back-to-back singles in the 4-4 tie ballgame. But the veteran Cruz showed why he’s an asset in the pen by striking out Hunter Pence swinging on four pitches.

“It was great,” catcher Rod Barajas said of the at-bat to Pence. “He needed an out there. Big out. He’s been doing it for a while. You see confidence coming out of him all the time. I’ve never had a conversation with him where he wasn’t sure about one of his pitches, sure about this or that. Whenever we talk he knows he can throw any pitch at anytime. You put it down and I’ll throw it. He did a great job yesterday.”

With a 1-1 tie at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday, Cruz came in to pitch the 7th with the game on the line. After retiring his first batter, Juan Uribe singled on a ground ball to third baseman Casey McGehee. Cruz struck out his next batter, then pinch-hitter Adam Kennedy hit a single into right field to put runners on the corners. The righty got out of the jam by freezing Dee Gordon on a 1-2 slider to end the threat.

“What makes him good is that he can throw any pitch at anytime,” Barajas said. “And he doesn’t throw a 87-88 mph fastball. He’s got velocity in the low to mid 90’s, and those secondary pitches, they’re all quality pitches. He’s got a good changeup, a good cutter, good curveball. With those type of guys, you can never get comfortable in the box. You can’t just sit there and look for one pitch, or one location…I think that’s what makes him tough. He proved that in spring training, and he proving that now.”