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Alvarez, Volquez get resurgent Pirates back on track

MILWAUKEE -- Clint Hurdle firmly believes that his Pittsburgh Pirates can reach the postseason for the second straight year.

The way the Pirates have played the last two nights against division-leading Milwaukee, there was no reason at all to dispute Hurdle's position.

Hurdle, the National League Manager of the Year in 2013, does not take this kind of position lightly. His club played well in all facets of the game Friday night, beating the Brewers, 8-3. Could the Pirates play like this the rest of the way? "Yes," Hurdle said. "We've been able to do it before. We had a week where we didn't do it at all. At one time we were the only team in the league that hadn't won more than four in a row, hadn't lost more than four in a row. Very consistent.

"And like everybody else, you want to build your game on pitching and defense, and we just weren't playing complete games for a solid week. It was situations where it wasn't one thing you could put your finger on.

"We've talked about what our purpose needs to be, and that's to play the way we're capable of playing. If we play the kind of baseball we can play from this point on out, we'll find our ways into the playoffs. I've told [our players] that. Not a doubt in my mind."

The Pirates encored Saturday night with an even more convincing 10-2 victory over Milwaukee. Edinson Volquez did a terrific job pitching out of difficulty, stranding eight Milwaukee runners in the first four innings.

But what stood out in this game, even apart from another sturdy performance in all aspects of the game, was the performance of Pedro Alvarez.

He made his second Major League start as a first baseman Saturday night. His work at first was largely uneventful, which was basically good news. At the plate, though, he homered twice, driving in four runs. Both home runs were to the opposite field.

His three-run homer in the fourth completely changed the game, giving the Pirates their first lead, 3-2.

Alvarez, who tied for the National League lead in home runs last year with 36, had seen his playing time diminish, due to a combination of his throwing problems at third base and the emergence of Josh Harrison as an impact player. But Alvarez's performance Saturday night should earn him more playing time at first base.

Hurdle went with Alvarez against Milwaukee's de facto ace, Wily Peralta, who came to this game tied for the Major League lead with 15 victories. Peralta routinely throws 96-98 mph with sink.

"It's hard," Hurdle said of a matchup against Peralta. "What a great story. I don't know how many people had this guy with a chance to win 20 games this season. This downhill angle this guy's got, predominantly a power pitcher. He's going to work down. We've got to get him up in the middle of the plate. Try to match some power with some power."

That was where Alvarez came in. Miller Park "can be a hitter-friendly park, but those balls were going out of any park," Hurdle said of Alvarez's two home runs.

"[Peralta] made some mistakes over the plate and we were able to barrel them up. [Alvarez] got some fastballs that were live but he got to them, barreled them up."

"I thought we did a good job as a team to swing at our pitches," Alvarez said. "[Peralta] is a guy who is very tough. He lives at the bottom of the [strike] zone. When we swing at those pitches, we either swing and miss, or we pound it right into the ground. I thought we did a good job of elevating against him, a good job of sticking with our approach as opposed to swinging at his pitches."

With these two victories over the Brewers, the Bucs are just four games out of first in the NL Central. And they are only 1 1/2 games back in the race for a Wild Card berth.

Their seven-game losing streak is looking much more like an aberration and much less like a trend. They were, after all, 5-9 with 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen on the disabled list. He's back now. And Alvarez could be making something of a comeback, too.

"We have a good team," Hurdle said. "And we're not surprised when we have success. [Playing in Milwaukee] has been a challenge for us in the past, but the past is the past. We're living in the moment.

"This place has been a ... Rubik's Cube for us when we come in here and play but we always turned the page."

The Pirates also turned the page after their seven-game losing streak and have won three straight. Needing victories against the division leaders the last two nights, they had the look of a team that should be headed toward the postseason.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for
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