Notes and observations from a recent visit to Pittsburgh's PNC Park:
PITTSBURGH - The Pirates have been one of Major League Baseball's better hitting teams since the beginning of May, but third baseman Pedro Alvarez hasn't joined the party.
The second overall pick behind Steven Strasburg in the 2008 Major League Baseball draft, Alvarez has been in a funk both at the plate and in the field.
Last season, Alvarez drove in 100 runs and tied Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt for the National League home run title with 36.
Entering this weekend's three-game series with the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, Alvarez hadn't hit a home run since June 3, and during a recent series with the Cincinnati Reds at PNC Park, Pirates' manager Clint Hurdle chose to pinch-hit for Alvarez against left-handed reliever Manny Parra twice.
Throughout his Major League career to date, Alvarez has been a streaky hitter who goes into long droughts before carrying the team for a week or two with the long ball.
But this season, he was hitting just .235 with 61 hits in his first 260 plate appearances, 11 of which had been home runs. Six of them, however, came in April, a month in which the Pirates limped to the finish line with a 9-16 record.
Moreover, Alvarez's play at third base has been erratic, particularly when he throws the ball. With 17 errors - 16 of them throwing - entering this weekend's Cubs series, Alvarez is well on his way to establishing a personal single-season worst mark in that category.
Alvarez's struggles in the field may be adversely affecting the 2013 National League All-Star's performance at the plate, and vice versa.
Pirates' manager Clint Hurdle doesn't know if that's the case, but he hopes that it's not.
"There's always a chance that your glove will seep into your bat, or that your bat will seep into your glove,'' Hurdle said. "That's never encouraged. We always remind our players to separate the ball and the bat.
"I don't know if one's seeping into the other,'' Hurdle said. "I know that he's working extremely hard to get a level of consistency that he's happy with.''
n The Pirates' starting pitching has been one of the team's biggest issues this season. Lefthander Francisco Liriano, the staff ace in 2013 with 16 wins, has won only once this season and is currently on the disabled list with a strained oblique. Another veteran lefthander, Wandy Rodriquez, who was both ineffective and injury-ridden, was released earlier this season.
Top righthanded prospect Gerrit Cole has been solid in his second season, but he's coming off a bout of shoulder stiffness. The Pirates have been mixing and matching all season, and the re-emergence of lefthander Jeff Locke after a summons from Class AAA Indianapolis has been a welcome sign in the rotation.
Locke has provided the Pirates with three very good starts since he's been brought back up, and righthander Charlie Morton had won three decisions in a row before taking a 6-3 loss in Friday's series opener with the Cubs.
Veteran righthander Vance Worley, recently acquired from the Minnesota Twins organization, made a sterling debut with the Pirates, throwing seven shutout innings against the Miami Marlins in Florida.
Keeping pitches out of the middle of the plate has been important for the Pirates' starters recently, according to Hurdle.
"They've been aggressive within the strike zone, and they've been staying out of the middle of the plate,'' Hurdle said. "They've mixed pitches in sequences extremely well, and the game-calling by our catchers has been very professional. Our pitchers have been dotting up the fast ball, filling up the [catcher's] glove, and mixing in spin.''
n The National League is deeper this year than last, with Milwaukee and San Francisco off to fabulous starts, the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals both showing the potential to repeat last season's appearance in the National League Championship Series, and the Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins all battling for first place in the NL East Division.
The Pirates will have their work cut out for them to finish among the league's top five teams and make another appearance in the postseason, but they're relishing the challenge.
"We've got to keep scratching and fighting, we're going to find a way,'' infielder-outfielder Josh Harrison said.
n Beginning with the Cubs series this weekend, the Pirates will play a stretch of 16 games against teams with losing records. After three in Chicago Friday through Sunday, the Bucs visit Tampa Bay for three games, before returning home to host the New York Mets for four games and the Arizona Diamondbacks and Philadelphia Phillies for three games apiece.
John Hartsock can be reached at email@example.com