MILWAUKEE -- There were plenty of defensive gems to go around Saturday night when Pittsburgh topped Milwaukee, 6-4, most notably a sliding catch by Andrew McCutchen in center field to preserve a two-run lead in the eighth. Two more highlight-reel plays came from infielders Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez -- and both were saved on picks by first baseman Casey McGehee.
For a guy new to the position, McGehee certainly hasn't done anything to hurt Pittsburgh's cause on defense this year.
"That was a work in progress all through Spring Training, and in our eyes, he's probably our best defender there," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said after Saturday's win.
McGehee played first base in just one game as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011, spending the remainder of his time at third base. But with Alvarez entrenched at the hot corner in Pittsburgh, McGehee's best opportunity to crack the lineup came on the other side of the diamond. He's made two errors and owns a .996 fielding percentage at first this year, ranking among the league leaders for National League players with at least 400 chances.
He won't be mistaken with the elite defensive first basemen in the game. However, his Ultimate Zone Rating, a popular defensive metric that attempts to quantify a player's defensive value in terms of runs saved or surrendered, is in the positive and ranks sixth in the National League among first basemen with at least 200 innings played.
"I've always taken a lot of pride in what I do with the glove," McGehee said. "It took a little while to like first base or get used to it, but I'm starting to enjoy it. I always liked being on the other side of a throw you're wishing you had back and seeing a guy pick you up. It's a lot easier when they hit me in the chest, but I try to do what I can to pick them up."
In the fourth inning Saturday, Walker ranged to his right at second base to grab a Cesar Izturis grounder, making an off-balance delivery that McGehee picked for the out. In the fifth, Alvarez barehanded a ball on the run and retired the speedy Ryan Braun, with McGehee handling the throw in the dirt. In the seventh, McGehee himself made an in-between hop from George Kottaras look routine.
Far flashier was the play he made on June 28, when he flagged down a foul pop before lunging over the railing into the stands to end a Philadelphia threat in the eighth inning of a one-run game. At third base, where he recorded 20 errors last year and finished fourth among all National League fielders in that dubious category, McGehee made a diving stop to take away an extra-base hit in a one-run game against Houston on July 3. McGehee has played nine games at third base this season without a gaffe.
It's all very solid for a player who had to learn the finer points of first base after being swapped for reliever Jose Veras in the offseason.
Milwaukeeans may have been rueing that particular deal Saturday for more than just the defensive component, when McGehee went 3-for-5 with a home run and two RBIs. He had been 1-for-10 in three games back at Miller Park since he was swapped to the Pirates.
"That's the beautiful thing about this ballpark; you don't have to get quite all of them to have them stretch out for you here," McGehee said of his eighth-inning homer.
He entered Sunday 6-for-14 with a double, homer and four RBIs in his last three games -- and that counted an 0-for-5 showing Friday -- and has hit .351 in July. The Pirates have won eight of their past nine games when McGehee drives in at least one run.
Veras, who posted a 3.80 ERA last year in 71 innings for the Pirates, has struggled a bit this year in Milwaukee, going 3-3 with a 4.50 ERA. His WHIP has skyrocketed from 1.24 last year to 1.74 this season.
Walker in midst of hottest stretch of season
MILWAUKEE -- Pirates second baseman Neil Walker has decidedly found his stroke. He started Sunday's game with a single, giving him a 15-game hitting streak, the longest such streak for a Pirates player this season, and leaving him three games shy of his career-best 18-game streak in 2010.
This isn't one of those hitting streaks characterized by a number of 1-for-4 showings, either. Walker is hitting .473 (26 for 55) with eight doubles, 14 RBIs and 18 runs scored in the stretch, and he has seven RBIs in his last five games.
"I think his balance, his foundation is the best it's been all season," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said before Saturday's game. "His shoulders are square when his front foot is hitting the ground, and he's just getting his swing off much cleaner."
His double-play partner, Clint Barmes, also made a nifty play Saturday when he corralled a blistering in-between hop and retired Corey Hart in the sixth.
"Within the industry, I think our guys have gotten attention," Hurdle said when asked if the double-play combo's defense flew under the radar. "Flash is fine when you get the job done, but our guys' flash is getting the job done. There's no bling to their game, they just make plays."
Presley begins rehab assignment in Indy
MILWAUKEE -- Outfielder Alex Presley, on track to return Tuesday from the disabled list, went 2-for-4 at Triple-A Indianapolis while leading off and playing left field. He also walked and scored a run. Presley incurred a concussion earlier this month and missed his seventh game Sunday.
"Everything went well; he'll be back out there today," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Presley incurred the concussion on July 3 when he dove for a ball in the outfield against Houston. He stayed in the game for two at-bats before being lifted with concussion-like symptoms.
Presley scored his run Saturday in the sixth during the 12-9 win over Columbus on Starling Marte's 10th home run of the year. Marte is hitting .286 with 55 RBIs in 88 games for the Indians.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle ruled out reliever Brad Lincoln for a second consecutive day Sunday. Lincoln threw 48 pitches in a two-inning stint Friday.
Jose Tabata is batting .243 in 37 at-bats through Saturday at Triple-A Indianapolis since his demotion from the Pirates earlier this month.
A win Sunday would give Pittsburgh an eighth straight series victory against National League Central opponents. That would mark its most consecutive series wins within the division since 10 straight series wins in 1992, when Pittsburgh was part of the National League East.
Pittsburgh and Milwaukee won't meet again until the final week of August, when the Brewers make their first trip of the season to PNC Park. Milwaukee will make another visit to Pittsburgh in September, and the Pirates visit Miller Park once more beginning Aug. 31.
JR Radcliffe is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.