The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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April 3, 2013

Pirates manager Hurdle tweaking batting lineup

PITTSBURGH — Clint Hurdle understands he’s breaking with baseball convention by moving slugger Garrett Jones to the second spot in the batting order.

The way the Pittsburgh Pirates manager views it, shifting the 6-foot-4 outfielder/first baseman from cleanup to second means more fastballs for Jones to look at, not a bad idea for a player that hit a career-high 27 home runs last year.

Of course, Hurdle allows it could backfire. He joked “it’s the opening day for second guessing” just hours before the new-look lineup opened the season and managed just three hits in a 3-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Monday.

If it doesn’t work out, Hurdle can bet on it.

Still, he’s encouraged by the options lifting Jones to second and playing him in right field provides. The club’s original idea was to platoon Jones and Gaby Sanchez at first, but Sanchez played so well during spring training – hitting .302 with a team-high four homers – Hurdle wanted to find a way to put Jones and Sanchez on the field at the same time.

The result is perhaps Jones became the tallest No. 2 hitter in baseball, a concept that brought a smile to Jones’ face.

“I think that it just shows we’re mixing it up a little bit and Clint has confidence in me to hit there and produce there and do the things I need to do,” Jones said. “I’m not going to change my game or anything.”

That includes continuing to be aggressive even with All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen in the on-deck circle. Jones doesn’t think his primary focus needs to take pitches or just try to move runners over – typically part of the job description for a player batting second. Just because he’s not batting cleanup doesn’t mean he has to stop thinking like a cleanup hitter.

“I think I get in trouble when I start taking too many pitches,” Jones said. “If I get a good one, I’m going to swing at it.”

The key is being selective. Jones hit .271 last year but walked just 33 times. He’d like to increase his .317 on-base percentage and he thinks it should happen if pitchers decide they want to attack him rather than take their chances with McCutchen.

“I’m just going to go up there and try and do damage and drive in runs and create havoc,” Jones said.

Sanchez and Walker are hoping to do the same. Walker split time between the second and fifth slots a year ago. Though he dutifully says he will hit wherever Hurdle puts him, Walker likes being toward the bottom of the order, where the chance to drive in runs is higher.

Walker hit .280 with 14 homers and 69 RBI in an injury-plagued 2012, missing most of the final six weeks with a back injury. He’s healthy now and – as a career .291 hitter with runners in scoring position – is eager to make opponents pay for pitching around the guys in front of him.

“It’s not a case of one spot being more comfortable than the other, but I’ve shown that I can do some positive things when there are guys on base,” Walker said.

Hurdle is quick to point out the significance of having Sanchez stuck somewhere between Jones and Walker.

Sanchez struggled after arriving in a trade deadline deal from Florida last July, hitting just .241 in 50 games. He spent the offseason working himself into better shape and arrived in Bradenton, Fla., in February ready to work.

The results were enough to convince Hurdle to go with his gut.

“Putting Garrett and Gaby out there gives us our best offensive lineup,” Hurdle said. “I’m not going to try and manipulate the lineup every day. We’re going to give it some air.”

Initial returns were mixed. Jones went hitless in four at-bats against Chicago while Walker singled and hit a pair of line drives, including a screamer to right fielder Nate Schierholtz in the ninth. If the ball is hit 10 feet in either direction, it likely drops and the Pirates could have rallied to tie the game.

Instead, Pittsburgh walked off with a loss, but it did little to douse Walker’s optimism.

“We know what we have here,” he said. “We believe that we’re trying to be put in the best position to win games and I think we’re excited about that.”

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