Ishikawa's play mixing things up at first base for Bucs
Veteran first baseman aims to heat up roster competition as camp winds down
BRADENTON, Fla. -- If they are being objective and honest, most followers of the Pirates' Spring Training will concede having considered Travis Ishikawa out of the picture even before he entered the batter's box. Before Ishikawa got his first at-bat, he spotted Andrew Lambo 20 and Chris McGuiness 15, giving the competition quite a head start.
A strained right hamstring kept the veteran first baseman out of sight, definitely out of mind, for the first two weeks of exhibition play.
Since finally swinging into action, however, Ishikawa has made it hard to not be noticed. After going hitless in his first seven at-bats, he has gone 6-for-9, with a pair of tape-measure home runs, complicating things for the Bucs.
Not so much because he is tempting the club to move away from a commitment to either Lambo or McGuiness as Gaby Sanchez's lefty-hitting wingman. Lambo (3-for-34) has been cold all spring and McGuiness (0-for-10) has gone cold.
But if general manager Neal Huntington was of a mind to go after one of the outside options who have been on the back-burner for months, Ishikawa may be prompting him to hold off. With only 10 days to go to the March 31 Opening Day, only so much vacillating time remains.
"I think, most often, the organization usually has a pretty good idea of who they want to be their guy," said Ishikawa, who is in his fourth different Major League camp in as many years. "But a lot of decisions can be made based on Spring Training. From first-hand experience, I don't really know about that … but what I do know is you can't really focus on what everybody else is doing, only on what you can do.
"So I just try to have good at-bats, so I can get going when the regular season starts, whether it is in Pittsburgh or Indianapolis."
Not many 30-year-olds who have logged big league time in six of the last eight seasons would be so accepting of the possibility -- perhaps even likelihood -- of being sent to Triple-A.
But Ishikawa appears aware of the need to rehabilitate his reputation after three seasons in which he totaled 171 Major League at-bats with three teams (Brewers, Orioles, Yankees). He had been the primary first baseman in 2009-10 for the San Francisco Giants, who consigned him in '11 to Triple-A, where he suffered a June shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery. The Giants non-tendered him after that season.
So Ishikawa has been to a few of these rodeos. In 2011, he was the Giants' last cut of the spring. He knows these opportunities can go down to the wire -- and also that hopes can be clotheslined by that wire.
"So I've been in enough of these to know that the more you worry about stuff like that, the more it affects your play on the field," said Ishikawa, who was invited to camp on a Minor League contract. "The biggest thing for me is to get myself ready for the season. Regardless of what happens here, I need to be ready to play. So I'm just preparing for that."
The Bucs may not be able to afford carrying a part-time first baseman who can't also assist in right field. It's the Garrett Jones model. Ishikawa has very limited outfield experience, making it ironic that he incurred this spring's hamstring injury playing the outfield, in the Feb. 25 Black vs. Gold squad game.
He has not set foot in the outfield since.
"I go where they tell me to go," Ishikawa said. "I'm sure they're trying to ease me back in. Knowing that hamstrings can be tricky sometimes, the last thing you want to do is re-aggravate it, so they're helping me out with a lot of DH-ing and first base."
Wherever his Spring Training leads, Ishikawa is pleased he resisted the urge to join the battle before he was fully healed.
"Absolutely … if this was five or six years ago when I was younger, I would've tried to play through it, and probably would've compensated in my swing so it wouldn't hurt so bad, and it would've affected me.
"I've been around long enough to know what I need to do to get ready. The trainers did a phenomenal job of treating to get me healthy and back on the field. It was my best decision to hold off."
Now Ishikawa is doing his best to make the Pirates staff's decision difficult.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.