Maturing Alvarez fueling Pittsburgh's playoff push
There's a sound that comes off Pedro Alvarez's bat when the Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman is feeling it that can send a jolt through a stadium and a franchise trying to escape two decades of losing.
It's not so much a ''crack'' as it is an explosion, a blast of fury in which the 25-year-old former first-round pick makes sending pitches to the distant part of ballparks look almost effortless.
It's the kind of power that can carry a team, the kind the Pirates have desperately needed while fighting for their first postseason berth in two decades.
Alvarez drilled three homers and drove in seven runs during a spectacular 27-hour stretch on Tuesday and Wednesday as the Pirates posted a pair of shutout wins over St. Louis to end a perilous freefall and pull back within a game of the Cardinals for the NL's final wild card spot.
''Every once awhile when he shows up like that he's the big kid on the playground,'' Hurdle said.
One the Pirates need to be a bully over the last five weeks of the season if they want to make the playoffs for the first time since 1992. While MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen has cooled off in August, Alvarez and Garrett Jones have provided the middle of the lineup with some needed thump.
Alvarez is hitting .280 during the season's second half and has already smashed a career-high 26 home runs heading into Friday's game in Milwaukee. While he remains streaky - Alvarez is fourth in the NL in home runs per at bats but has also endured a pair of 20-game homerless droughts - when he's hot he's one of the toughest outs in the game.
It's a lesson St. Louis pitcher Joe Kelly learned on Wednesday. He tried to sneak an 82 mph curveball past Alvarez in the third inning, and Alvarez turned on it and sent a shot to the right field seats so quickly his bat had barely hit the ground when the ball landed 400 feet away.
''He's the kind of player that you just can't pattern,'' St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. ''Joe threw a breaking ball and most guys are sitting dead red in that situation. He's hit some good off-speed pitches against us. It's not like we're just tossing the ball up there.''
Alvarez doesn't have an explanation for why he torched the Cardinals this season, hitting .398 with seven homers and 23 RBIs in 15 games against the defending world champions. He's not really concerned about finding one either.
''The thing about comfort is that you don't really think much when you're up there and you feel comfortable,'' Alvarez said. ''When comfort and confidence go hand-in-hand, it does a lot for you.''
Getting into a comfort zone, however, has been difficult for the soft-spoken kid who grew up in New York City. The Pirates made him the second overall pick in the 2008 draft hoping his power and PNC Park's short right-field porch would make a good combination.
It did, at least initially. He smacked 16 homers in 95 games after being called up in 2010 but struggled to stay healthy and get on base a year ago. Alvarez hit .191 with four home runs and 19 RBIs last season, getting booed while meekly dribbling grounders as the Pirates went through a late-summer swoon that sent them to their 19th straight losing season.
The team encouraged Alvarez to play in the Arizona Fall League to refine his swing. Instead he chose to work out alone, a decision that did little to assure a fan base he wasn't another high-profile bust.
A slow start this spring didn't help. Alvarez's batting average didn't creep over .200 until April 30. Then, the switch suddenly flipped. He started spraying the ball all over the field, and perhaps the biggest proof of his newfound maturity at the plate came in the third inning on Tuesday night against St. Louis.
With McCutchen on second and two outs, Alvarez took a Jake Westbrook pitch and hit it into the seats in the notch in left-center field that serves as the deepest part of PNC Park. It was only the fourth time a left-handed batter had gone deep over the 410-foot sign.
The solo blast Alvarez hit three innings later, a 469-foot shot to right-center that Hurdle joked was going to ''hit the (Roberto) Clemente Bridge'' was just gravy.
''It might have been one of those `ah-ha' games for Pedro,'' Hurdle said. '''This is why I work so hard. This is why I put all the extra effort in. This is why I want to be special in this game.'''
The teammates who watched Alvarez shoulder much of the blame for last year's collapse are the same ones who rush to the edge of the dugout each time they hear the thunderous sound Alvarez's bat makes when he's locked in.
Now he's helping lead a charge for a team that insists it's not fading anytime soon.
''These guys love to play,'' Hurdle said. ''They love the challenges in front of them. We're not trying to be slaves to the history that's here. We're trying to create new history.''