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Pirates Pregame Thursday: McGehee heats up, Bucs face easy schedule through July

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The Pirates' offensive improvement in June can be tied to facing easier pitching and the success of Casey McGehee.

Casey McGehee and the Pittsburgh Pirates weren't fazed by a difficult April schedule, one that found them playing 22 of their first 25 games against teams with winning records in 2011.

"We should probably be about 20 games under, with the way our season started and some of the clubs we faced," McGehee said.


But the Bucs survived that stretch with an 11-14 record, and now the task gets easier. Of their next 37 games, 31 will be against teams currently under .500. That is a kind schedule through July for a Pirates club that owns a 19-9 record against such losing teams, the second-best mark in the Major Leagues. But McGehee realizes that they are still Major League teams.


"Anybody that walks out there on the mound or at the plate at this level has a chance to have a huge day and pretty much single-handedly take over a game," McGehee said. "Especially if it's the guy on the mound. So you can't look past anybody."


After all, the division-leading Cincinnati Reds (ahead of the Pirates by 2.5 games) have a soft schedule as well: playing 27 of their next 37 games against sub-.500 teams, until the Reds and Pirates meet again on August 3.




McGehee has been one of the keys to the Pirates' offensive turnaround since Memorial Day weekend. In June, the first baseman has heated up with a .347 average, three homers and a 1.013 OPS (leading the Pirates and 9th in the National League this month).


"Really just trying to take a step back, not continually mess with my mechanics and overthink things," McGehee said about what he is focused on. "Have a little confidence in myself that I'm a pretty darn good hitter when I'm right."


Manager Clint Hurdle thinks McGehee was trying to hard to make a good first impression in Pittsburgh, and that pressing was part of his .190 batting average and zero homers in the first two months. But now, McGehee is making his ninth-straight start at first base.


"That's why we went out there to acquire him," Hurdle said. "We felt that this bat would play in the middle of our lineup and he could help be a run producer. The at-bats have been very good this June."


The offseason acquisition from Milwaukee played only played 22 career innings at first before this season, and while new things happen at the first base position every day, he says he is gaining confidence there.


"Every day I go over there, it gets a little bit more comfortable and a little more second-nature," McGehee said. "It's easier to play any position when you're not having a thought process about every little move you make."




On May 28, I wrote that the Pirates had gone up against the toughest starting pitching in the NL Central (average starter faced: 3.55 earned run average), which contributed to the team's offensive problems. The Pirates were averaging 3.0 runs per game and hitting .219, both the worst in the Major Leagues.


Since then, the Pirates have faced starters with an average of a 4.04 ERA (about NL average). And what do you know, the team's run production has improved. Since May 28, the Bucs' offense has averaged 4.5 runs per game and have hit .251 as a team. Moreover, among the things opposing pitchers can control most, the Pirates have improved. The offense has gone from 2.2 walks per game pre-May 28 to 2.8 per game since. And they have lowered their strikeout totals from 8.4 per game to 7.6 per game.


And the bottom line of facing less tough pitching: 83 runs since May 28, the fifth-most in the National League.


(Note: All ERA numbers are from the start of 2011, excluding starts against the 2012 Pirates. This is to get a more accurate sample of the pitcher's talent level.




If you need an example of that easier pitching, look no further than tonight's starter for the Minnesota Twins, Liam Hendriks. The 23-year-old Australian has nine Major League starts under his belt, recording a ghastly 6.99 ERA and allowing 1.7 baserunners per inning.


That said, he had plenty of success in Triple-A earlier this year, with a 1.94 ERA in seven starts, and is Minnesota's top pitching prospect, according to Baseball America.


"More often than not with young pitchers, it's getting into pitcher's counts versus hitter's counts," Hurdle said. "The one big challenge for guys coming up from Triple-A is the extended lineup strength. In Triple-A, you might have a handful of guys that you really have to deal with, and here you can get hurt from anywhere in the lineup if you don't execute."




Another aspect of the Pirates' offense improving has been in converting stolen bases attempts, as the team leads the NL this month with 20 stolen bases. In June, the Bucs have swiped bags at a 74 percent success rate, compared to a 61 percent success rate in the first two months.


"He always wants us to go," said Alex Presley of his manager. "We're just getting more confidence out there... always looking for the opportunity to get the extra base."




The Pirates' top two pitching prospects, Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole, were the two Pittsburgh-affilated players named to the 2012 XM All-Star Futures Game in Kansas City on July 8, as a part of All-Star week festivities.


"We're excited for Tommy Filer too, don't kick the coach to the curb!" Hurdle said. Yes, Indianapolis pitching coach Filer will join Taillon and Cole on Team USA. "Every player that I've ever talked to, this opportunity had a dramatic impact on them... the experience that they're going to gain from it should do nothing but help them moving forward."


While the 21-year-old Taillon is still with High-A Bradenton, Cole was impressive in his first Double-A start Wednesday night.




Pittsburgh Pirates (35-32, 2.5 games back in NL Central)

LF Alex Presley

2B Neil Walker

CF Andrew McCutchen

RF Garrett Jones

1B Casey McGehee

3B Pedro Alvarez

C Rod Barajas

SS Josh Harrison

RHP James McDonald


Minnesota Twins (27-40, 8.5 games back in AL Central)

CF Denard Span

RF Ben Revere

LF Josh Willingham

1B Justin Morneau

3B Trevor Plouffe

C Ryan Doumit

SS Brian Dozier

2B Alexi Casilla

RHP Liam Hendricks
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