08/22/12 6:50 PM ET
Up-the-middle defense could be difference
By Chelsea Janes / MLB.com
But a year later, that same Pittsburgh squad is still very much in contention in late August, something its manager believes is mainly the product of leadership up the middle that the club simply didn't have in 2011.
The Pirates added catcher Rod Barajas and shortstop Clint Barmes this offseason, and the experience at those two crucial positions has stabilized the center of the Pittsburgh defense, as well as evened out the youth in the clubhouse.
The Barajas-Barmes duo has combined with emerging stars Andrew McCutchen in center field and Neil Walker at second base to give the Pirates a glut of leadership and composure up the middle that wasn't there a year ago.
"The addition of these guys, we added experience, we added leadership, and we added strength up the middle," Hurdle said. "I think the backbone of what you do is always built up the middle. With the addition of Barajas, [A.J.] Burnett and Barmes, and the two young leaders in McCutchen and Walker, it's all kind of come together."
Barajas has caught 83 of the Pirates' 123 games, and while he has struggled with the bat (hitting .195 coming into Wednesday), Hurdle believes his defensive presence and experience behind the plate have been invaluable.
"We're aware of what hasn't happened for him offensively, but it's what he's done for us defensively," Hurdle said. "Helping grow up the staff, not just the starters, but the bullpen."
Barmes has played 110 games and is hitting .225, though as with Barajas, it's his veteran presence and defensive prowess that Hurdle says makes his addition so important.
"With Barmes in the middle, he's been an outstanding addition from the defensive side of the ball," Hurdle said. "[He's] playing 27 outs, not extending innings, [making guys] not have to throw more pitches."
Hurdle hopes those additions help the Pirates build on what they've already accomplished this season, and keep Pittsburgh going strong down the stretch and into the playoffs.
"Defensively, we're solid. Leadership-wise, those additions have been great," Hurdle said. "We were built better coming in this year than we were coming in last year, and these guys, they just feel we're a better team."
Jones displays power with two late homers at Petco
SAN DIEGO -- Hitting one ball out of pitcher-friendly Petco Park is quite a feat. Hitting two out in one game, including one to dead center, is nearly Herculean.
But that's precisely what Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones did on Tuesday night, with two game-tying homers, no less.
"It was very impressive, that's a big-time night," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "To answer late, two runs down, hit a ball out of this ballpark -- he hit two of them late at night, which is hard to do."
That two-run homer came with two outs in the top of the ninth with the Pirates one out away from a 5-3 loss. Jones ripped a Dale Thayer offering to dead center to bring the Bucs back. His first homer came in the sixth off Padres starter Jason Marquis, who had held Jones to one hit in 13 career at-bats against him coming into Tuesday.
"His numbers off Marquis weren't good, but I didn't want to take him out of the lineup," Hurdle said. "He said he was going to make some adjustments, and obviously he did."
"He obviously has a good sinker, and I've had a lot of ground-ball outs where I've been rolling over the ball," Jones said of his career against Marquis. "I just tried to really stay through the ball a little better, stay through up the middle of the field, drive it up the middle."
It worked pretty well, as Jones was 2-for-2 with a walk and a single off Marquis to go with his home run. All told, Jones was 3-for-4 with three RBIs in the game, a great night by any standard, but one in keeping with the kind of month -- and season -- the 31-year-old is having.
Jones is hitting .368 in August coming into Wednesday's game, with five homers and 20 RBIs. The two homers on Tuesday pushed Jones to 21 on the season, already tying his career high, and his .287 average has him within striking distance of his best number to date, a .293 mark in 2009.
"It feels a lot better when you're doing well and the team's winning," Jones said of his strong season. "Where we're at now -- to be able to do well and help the team do that, contribute -- it makes it very special. To have a winning season right now and kind of having one of my better seasons makes it more special."
Bucs have few answers to struggles against Padres
SAN DIEGO -- If you're wondering why the Pirates just can't seem to beat the Padres, you're not alone.
"I wish I could make something of it, other than you want to stop it," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "I've seen it for two years. They hit better than us, they pitch better than us, they field better than us, overall. That pretty much explains it, and I don't know the reason why."
Whatever the reason, the fact is that Pittsburgh can not solve the Padres' puzzle. San Diego has won 17 of the last 20 matchups between the squads dating back to September 2009, and in that span, the Padres have outscored the Pirates, 129-72. The Padres had an 11-game winning streak at PNC Park snapped in the series finale there earlier this month, and San Diego has a 15-6 record against the Bucs at Petco Park since 2006.
It's not that the Padres have been a particularly dominant squad since 2009. Currently in fourth in the National League West, San Diego has only finished higher than that or with a winning record in one season since '09. The Padres have a combined 291-320 record since the beginning of 2009 coming into Wednesday, which is better than the Pirates' 258-350 record in that time.
And while the fact that the Padres have not necessarily been in the midst of stellar seasons during their recent run of domination over the Pirates may lead one to believe Pittsburgh lets down its guard when playing San Diego, Hurdle doesn't believe that's the case.
"We don't take them lightly. We didn't take them lightly this year, we didn't take them lightly last year," Hurdle said. "They've just been a very formidable opponent for us. They've got some good things going on over there."
"It's one of those things you can't really explain," veteran first baseman Garrett Jones said. "For whatever reason, they step it up when they're playing us. They step it up, play good baseball, get timely hits, their pitchers pitch well, and they keep us at bay."
Wednesday will be the last chance for Pittsburgh to strike some measure of revenge on San Diego this season, and whatever the outcome, Hurdle and his Pirates won't be too sad to say goodbye to the pesky Padres until 2013.
"The team we're facing tonight has provided us nothing but troubles, as people keep reminding me," Hurdle said. "I don't know the reason why."
Chelsea Janes is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.