Pirates Notebook: Lincoln Learning New Role in Bullpen

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PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Right-hander Brad Lincoln made two starts with Triple-A Indianapolis, where he posted a 2.25 ERA with no walks and nine strikeouts over 12.0 innings, before getting recalled to Pittsburgh. Lincoln returned to the bigs on April 18 after the club placed righty Jeff Karstens (right shoulder inflammation) on the 15-day disabled list. Ever since he’s been in a Pirate uniform in 2012, Lincoln has been solid.

Over six appearances (11.1 innings), Lincoln has allowed just one run on eight hits with five walks and 12 strikeouts. On the day he was recalled, Lincoln tossed 3.0 scoreless frames and picked up the win in Arizona — the fourth win in his Major League career.

“Just going out there and attacking the zone,” Lincoln said of his success. “Don’t be afraid to lose. If you come in with bases loaded with other guys’ runners on, go at them like you would with the bases empty. For the bullpen, for me, it is a little bit different because I can come in and be full throttle from pitch one. If I’m only going to go two innings, I can blow it out those two innings and be fine. Everything’s been working out. I’ve been lucky a few times, some line outs, stuff like that too. It’s a work in progress. I’m learning. Just talking to some of the guys down in the bullpen.”

The bullpen role is somewhat new for Lincoln. Throughout his minor league career, the right-hander has been a starter. He’s made 86 starts in the Pirates organization since being drafted in the first round (fourth overall) in 2006. After making his Major League debut in 2010, Lincoln has appeared in 23 games, 17 of them starts.

Last year in Pittsburgh, Lincoln bounced between starting and relieving, and said that the experience has helped him have a successful mindset out of the bullpen.

“Just being at this level in general,” Lincoln said. “Whether it’s starting or reliving, whatever. The more experience you get, the better you get at it. The more you’re able to read hitters and understand what they’re trying to do in certain situations. That’s a big key for me.”

With the Pirates starting staff pitching the way it has so far in 2012, Lincoln’s current role looks to be in the bullpen — a place that he’s thrived so far.

“When he’s throwing the ball the way he’s throwing up here recently, he can be a good starter, or he can be a good late inning reliever,” General Manager Neal Huntington said. “Low to mid-90’s fastball with life to it, power breaking ball and good use of the changeup, he can be effective in any role. And that’s the nice part about it for us.”

“[Manager] Clint [Hurdle] is going to be able to use him in multiple roles. If we needed a start, Brad Lincoln would probably be the first one to get the opportunity right now because he’s still stretched out. As time progresses, if he plays himself into a backend bullpen piece, that’s a good thing as well. We’re not going to pigeon hole him in any distinct role right now. Clint’s going to use him while he’s on this club to help the club win a game that night. If we need a start, or somebody to pitch a long, somebody to pitch late, Brad has the stuff that he can be successful in any role. He’s pitching well.”

Progressing back to a high-leverage situation is something Lincoln said he would look forward to.

“I think it will be good for me to be put in those high-risk situations to see what I’ve got,” Lincoln said. “I’m up for any challenge. That’s just my demeanor and the way I go about my business. I’m not going to change the way I pitch against guys whether it’s the fifth or the sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth inning. I’m just going to go and do my best to get outs.”


Hague Progressing at Third Important Step

Infielder Matt Hague was nicknamed ‘the hit collector’ by skipper Clint Hurdle during spring training. And that’s exactly what he did — hit. After going 22-for-55 (.400) with a team-leading seven homers, Hague broke camp with the club and made his Major League debut. The 26-year-old appeared in five games before being sent down to Triple-A Indianapolis during the club’s west coast road trip in San Francisco.

After being drafted as a third baseman by Pittsburgh in 2008, Hague was moved to primarily first base during the 2009 season. Since being sent down to Triple-A, Hague has been seeing most of the playing time at third. With Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee platooning at first, Hague will need to continue to improve his versatility before getting that call back up.

“[I] feel good,” Hague said over the phone from Indianapolis. “Much more consistent playing there now, and just getting down and being consistent with my arm slot and footwork has improved. Playing there everyday down here has made me much more comfortable.”

“Matt’s still a work in progress at third,” Huntington said. “What we’re trying to do there is just find another way for him to be used by a manager at the Major League level. Matt can obviously swing the bat. He’s got some comfort at first base. It’s tough to carry a right-handed hitting bench first base bat. So that’s why we’re trying to add another way for Matt — not only to make the club, but to impact the club. Getting him outside his comfort zone. It’s a little bit of a challenge for him, but it’s an important step for him if he can come up here and be serviceable, even if it’s the third option at third base for Clint, and for our Major League club. It’s makes him that much more valuable to us.”

Hague hit for a .222/.250/.259 line in 54 at-bats over 13 games in April, but has improved in May. Over eight games, Hague has hit for a .355/.429/.387 line in 31 at-bats with Indy.


Alvarez’s Hard Work Starting to Pay Off

Third baseman Pedro Alvarez worked hard throughout spring training and the beginning of the season, although the work didn’t show up on his stats. After spending hours and hours with hitting coach Gregg Ritchie, hitting in the cages, doing early work, Alvarez’s bat has taken off.

Over his last nine games, Alvarez has gone 12-for-30 (.400) with three home runs and nine RBI. His .579 slugging percentage leads all third baseman in the Majors. After starting the season batting seventh, Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle hit him cleanup for the first time not only this season, but since his rookie year in 2010 on Friday.

“Clint has continued to pound the table for Pedro. Pedro’s continued to work. He’s continued conviction and belief in his willingness to make an adjustment — both mentally, in terms of his of his approach, and physically in terms of his swing,”  Huntington said. “We know he’s a talented player. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we’re a better offensive club If he’s doing what he’s capable of. We know the talent is in there. It’s a matter of reaching it, and allowing him to help it come out and play on a consistent basis. We’ve still got work to do there.”

“In Pedro’s case, he’s turned the corner. Now, can we continue to climb. We wish development could be a linear line. It’s not. There’s going to be hot spots, there’s going to be cold spots. It’s just the matter of making the hot spots longer and the cold spots shorter.”

Alvarez moved away from the toe tap that he had in spring training, allowing him to simplify his stride. Since then, the third baseman has looked much better at the plate. He’s leading the team in home runs, and has been hitting to the opposite fields as well. Alvarez whiffed 23 times in 59 at-bats in April, but has struck out just three times in 18 at-bats in the month of May.

“He went away from the toe tap that he had in spring training,” Huntington said of his adjustments. “Which as a result, simplified his entire swing and made it more compact. The mentality of attacking his pitch early, understanding what he’s looking for, why he’s looking for it, and what are the chances he’s going to get it. If he’s looking for something he’s not going to get, maybe readjusting his sights a little bit. Once he commits to what he’s looking for, stay with it. If he’s looking for something out over the plate soft, and he gets a fastball in, he’s just got to take it instead of an emergency hack as so many young hitters will do.”

Much was made out of Alvarez’s rough spring training, and first two weeks of the season. But like any player, they will go through rough patches.

“If he has a tough 12 game stretch in June, we don’t really talk about it as much. But because it’s a tough 12 game stretch to start the season, it gets a lot attention and notoriety. And its unfortunate,” Huntington said. “That’s why everybody wants to get off to a good start…They don’t like looking up there at seeing .147 when they come to the batters box. If you get off to a quick start and you hit .400 for three weeks, nobody really notices when you’re down to .280. But when you hit .140, they notice it….It was a tough 12 game stretch. Let’s put this into perspective, this was a pretty good 14 game stretch. He’s going to have some tough 12 games stretches for the next, hopefully, 15 years of his career. There’s going to be 15 game stretches where he’s going to have a tough time. How he battles through it, this will be a good learning opportunity for him.”