8/9/2014 11:04 P.M. ET
MLB's best fastballs: Chapman, Kimbrel ... Volquez?
By Tom Singer and Stephen Pianovich / MLB.com
PITTSBURGH -- At first, Edinson Volquez thought it was a joke, that he was being set up. Being recognized by Baseball America as having the third-best fastball in the Majors, right behind fireballing closers Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel?
But when the Pirates righty was shown the proof in the publication's current "Best Tools" issue, Volquez had a different reaction.
"Hey, Ray!" he shouted, calling for Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Searage, his eyes as wide as saucers.
"Imagine when I was 19," Volquez, 31, said. "That's still not too bad, huh?"
Nearby teammates also had a reaction.
"You gotta show that to [Gerrit] Cole when he returns," said Jared Hughes, referring to the rehabbing right-hander who last season often hit triple-figures on the radar as a rookie.
Fellow Dominican Stolmy Pimentel scowled as he leapt from his stool in the adjoining locker in mock anger: "I disagree!"
Volquez, the Bucs' leader in wins with nine, has averaged 94, 95 mph on his fastballs, which in early June peaked at 97 mph.
"That's never bad news," manager Clint Hurdle said when told of the ranking. "Good for him. We all felt the raw skill set is one that catches your attention."
Alvarez buys into Bucs' plan to use him at first
PITTSBURGH -- Early Friday afternoon, Clint Hurdle had one of the hardest conversations of his managerial career with a player: He had to ask 2013 National League All-Star third baseman Pedro Alvarez to buy into trying a new position that could free him from his throwing yips.
"I'm well aware of the fact I signed up for 'hard.' I always balance the importance of the one with the importance of the 24," Hurdle said. "That plays, with 50 games left in the season."
Alvarez's reception of and reaction to the suggestion was in evidence a half-hour later: He spent batting practice taking grounders and working on his footwork at first base -- the beginning of the process to reclaim his valuable bat without risking a rise in his 22 throwing errors.
"We had a long, engaging conversation [Friday] on his return [from three days on the bereavement list], and I encouraged him to listen to our thoughts on how best to return him to form on both sides of the ball," Hurdle said. "He gave it some thought, came back … and said he wants to do whatever he can to help this club win games."
"It's just another opportunity to help this team any way possible," Alvarez said Saturday prior to another cram session at first. "I think it shows the faith and the desire and the want that the organization has in me for me to help in any way possible. Moving over, taking ground balls at first … gives Hurdle and this team some options to be able to use me any way possible. I'm thankful for the opportunity."
While stressing that Alvarez would continue to also take grounders at third, Hurdle strongly implied that his visibility at that position would be limited.
"There could still be a game or a time in a game to fall his way," the manager said. "We have not closed the book at third. Right now, we feel it's better to go at it another way."
Josh Harrison, while still seeing occasional action at other positions, has assumed ownership of third base. In 33 games there, including 16 starts, Harrison had hit .386, with five homers and 15 RBIs and an OPS of 1.115.
A successful transition for Alvarez also has possible long-term ramifications. Neither of the first basemen now sharing the position, Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez, is signed for 2015, although both are still under club control (eligible for salary arbitration).
Walker pinch-hits, could start finale
PITTSBURGH -- Neil Walker made his first appearance in four days Saturday night -- in a pinch-hitting role -- and he could return to the Pirates' lineup Sunday as the second baseman works through a nagging back that has hampered him in the last week.
Walker came off the bench in the ninth inning of Saturday's 2-1 loss to the Padres and struck out against right-handed closer Joaquin Benoit. The Pittsburgh native has started just once in the Bucs' last seven contests due to back tightness, and even left that game after seven innings. But Walker noted he felt "much better" Saturday and hopes to be penciled in the team's lineup Sunday afternoon in the series finale against San Diego.
"I could have played tonight," Walker said. "But with the day game [Sunday], we figured might as well give it one more night."
Added Pirates manager Clint Hurdle: "I think we have every feeling the swings went well tonight and if he feels good [Sunday], we'll have him back in the lineup."
Walker, 28, is hitting .277 this season with 16 homers and 50 RBIs in 97 games.
• Brandon Cumpton, who was scratched from his scheduled start Friday night for Triple-A Indianapolis, is "on hold" in case a decision to disable Andrew McCutchen or Neil Walker opens up a roster spot; the Bucs' bullpen went light one reliever when Ernesto Frieri was designated for assignment on Friday.
• Walker (lower-back tightness) had a "nice, big, full workout," in Hurdle's words, prior to Saturday's game. He'll either resume play or be placed on the DL before the weekend's out.
• McCutchen (fractured rib) took "big steps forward" in his recovery program on Saturday, Hurdle said. Those steps included taking more intense swings and making some throws at 90 feet. McCutchen, the reigning NL MVP, has not played since getting hurt on a swing last Sunday in Arizona, but remains on the active roster.
First number, last word
1: Home run hit by the Pirates, through Friday, in their last seven games -- in which they still scored a total of 38 runs, winning five of them.
"I know this man is committed to doing whatever it takes to being a Hall of Fame third baseman." - Hurdle, on Alvarez, whose time at the position has been interrupted by throwing issues.
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. Stephen Pianovich is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.