No matter how much success Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez has had in the major leagues, it’s always come with a caveat.
Yes, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft added much-needed elite power to the Pirates’ organization, but his agent Scott Boras squeezed general manager Neal Huntington for every penny he could get through a protracted contract negotiation process.
Yes, the former Vanderbilt star showed flashes of tremendous potential in his rookie MLB season of 2010, capped with an NL rookie of the month award in September, but he spent more than half of 2011 with Triple-A Indianapolis after looking lost at the plate to start the year.
Yes, the 26-year-old has developed into a middle-of-the-order force over the past two years, slamming 30 homers and slugging .467 in 2012 and following it up by hitting an NL-leading 36 bombs this regular season, with a SLG of .473 and 100 runs batted in. But “El Toro” also hit just .233 and struck out 186 times in 614 plate appearances, making him frequently an all-or-nothing proposition with the bat.
With the glove, Pedro has shown a knack for making spectacular plays, with the barehand grab and bullet throw becoming his signature move at third base. However, he’s also had a difficult time with seemingly routine plays, and his error total would be higher if he couldn’t make up for bobbles with his remarkably strong arm.
But for all of Alvarez’ yin and yang, there’s no equivocation when it comes to this postseason – he’s been outstanding. His October started somewhat routinely, as he went 0 for 3 against Cincinnati in the NL wild card game at PNC Park last Tuesday, although his sacrifice fly produced a key insurance run in the Pirates’ landmark 6-2 win.
Alvarez went 1 for 3 as the NLDS began Thursday in St. Louis, with his monster home run serving as the only damage the Pirates could do against Adam Wainwright in a 9-1 Game 1 defeat. Rookie starting pitcher Gerrit Cole got most of the headlines in Friday’s Game 2, a 7-1 Pittsburgh victory that evened the series, but Alvarez was the catalyst at the plate, rifling a double to set up the Bucs’ first run and sending a two-run line-drive bomb to make it 3-0 early on.
As the best-of-five series shifted to Pittsburgh, Alvarez smacked the biggest hit of Game 3, a go-ahead eighth-inning RBI single off tough lefty Kevin Siegrist that provided the difference in a 5-3 victory. Pedro delivered in just as important a spot in Monday’s Game 4, ending Michael Wacha’s no-hit bid with one out in the eighth by launching a moonshot to pull the Pirates within 2-1.
After Alvarez put a charge into the 40,000-plus on the North Shore, he also made a tremendous barehand play to retire David Freese in the ninth, giving Pittsburgh a chance to finish the rally in the bottom half.
Add it all up and it looks like this for Alvarez: five postseason games, a .313 batting average (5 for 16), .368 on-base percentage and an eye-popping .938 slugging percentage, with four runs scored and six driven in. His stunning 1.306 OPS has been powered by three homers, and he’s handled all of his chances in the field flawlessly. Alvarez is just the second player ever to get an RBI in each of his first five playoff games, joining former Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra.
In short, this is what the Pirates hoped for when they drafted Alvarez five years ago: huge production in meaningful situations. Power plays all year, but especially in October, when one mighty swing can decide a game, a series and sometimes a championship. It may be simply a well-timed hot streak from Alvarez, but he is making a difference – just as much as presumed NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, who has a sparkling .412/.545/.471 line in these playoffs.
My only gripe? Alvarez should be hitting fourth, so as to maximize his plate appearances over the course of the game. Late-season trade acquisition Justin Morneau has manned the Pirates’ cleanup spot for the past few weeks, but Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle should slot Pedro behind McCutchen for the decisive Game 5.
With a berth in the NLCS at stake Wednesday night at Busch Stadium, Alvarez deserves to have the best chance to affect the outcome. But no matter where he bats or whether the Pirates advance to further competition, the Big Bull is taking the biggest situation of his baseball life by the horns.