A dormant, hapless franchise for nearly two decades, the Pittsburgh Pirates are fighting to stay relevant through the final weeks of the regular season.
In the middle of that team’s push to reach the playoffs and secure a winning record — neither of which has happened since 1992 — is a two-fold Middle Tennessee influence. Former Vanderbilt stalwart Pedro Alvarez is setting into the middle of the lineup, while ex-Middle Tennessee State standout Michael McKenry has bolstered the Pirates’ depth at catcher.
As Pittsburgh tries to avoid another late season swoon, the clubhouse presence of those two can’t be overlooked, according to their former college coaches.
The second overall pick in the 2008 draft, Alvarez has spent parts of the past three years in the big leagues but has broken through this year with 27 home runs and 73 RBIs. In addition to his undeniable power, the starting third baseman also brings a levelheaded approach.
“He’s very calm, he is very deliberate in how he goes about business,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “I thought he was always mature when he was here. His maturity and how he handles himself and his presence was always that of a winning ballplayer. We lost a little bit of presence when he got out of the lineup in 2008 when he broke his hamate bone, and I think it affected us.
“I thought he was a heck of a baseball player. We haven’t had many like him in the time we’ve been here.”
McKenry arrived in Pittsburgh in June 2011 after a trade with the Boston Red Sox. It marked his third team in less than three months, as he spent spring training with Colorado. He was drafted by the Rockies in 2006 and made an impression on former Colorado manager Clint Hurdle. In his second season with the Pirates, Hurdle spearheaded the trade to acquire McKenry.
“He has tremendous makeup,” former MTSU coach Steve Peterson said. “His personality, his toughness — he just kind of grows on you.”
In 74 games the Knoxville native has batted .254 with 12 home runs and 39 RBIs serving as the backup for Rod Barajas. His strength, though, is leadership behind the plate, and Peterson witnessed that again last week.
Peterson, who retired as MTSU’s coach in July, traveled to Cincinnati to watch the Pirates play the Reds. He stuck around late Monday night to watch his former All-American spell Barajas in the 10th inning and guide the bullpen in an eventual 4-3 loss in 14 innings.
“He really has command of the pitching staff,” Peterson said. “You can see the confidence that they have in him. ... He loves that part of calling the game and working with the pitchers. The old expression is he doesn’t bring his bat behind the plate. Just because he is having a bad day offensively, it is not going to affect the way he calls the game or catches the game. The pitchers really respect that.”
Corbin also recently watched the Pirates play, making the trip to Pittsburgh three weeks ago with his wife, Maggie, before heading to Williamsport, Pa., to watch Goodlettsville in the Little League World Series.
Alvarez went 0-for-4 that day and struck out three times. His 157 strikeouts are the fifth-most in the majors and contribute to a .242 batting average.
Corbin, however, believes Alvarez will make the necessary adjustments like he has all season.
“I think he has had a great progression. He started slower than he may have wanted. But the last couple months he has taken off,” Corbin said. “He is a quick learner, and he is very aware of his swing. He has a sponge-like mind. He picks things up. He is going to experience a lot of growth in this game.”
Both players will return to the area after the season ends as Alvarez now calls Nashville home, and McKenry is moving to Murfreesboro. They hope the trip is delayed for a bit, as the Pirates were just 2.5 games back of the second NL Wild Card spot after having lost six straight going into last weekend.
Though both players fill different roles, both could be beneficial with their skill sets and intangibles — even when they aren’t playing.
“I think [McKenry] can be a big part of them righting the ship here at the end and getting it going,” MTSU’s first-year coach Jim McGuire said. “When he’s in there his performance has been good, but when I watch him on days that he doesn’t play, he’s always at the end of that bench with the coaches. He’s always done that. He did that his freshman year when he didn’t catch every day for us.”
A quartet of former Vanderbilt standouts is still playing meaningful baseball in mid-September. Along with Pedro Alvarez of the Pittsburgh Pirates, former first-round picks Ryan Flaherty, Mike Minor and David Price are in the thick of playoff races. Here is a glance at the players and their respective teams:
Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh Pirates
The starting third baseman ranks eighth in the National League with 27 home runs. However, consistency has been an issue for the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder, who has 157 strikeouts, fifth-most in the majors. Still, his power has aided the Pirates in their hunt for the second NL Wild Card as they sit only 2.5 games back with two weeks left.
Ryan Flaherty, Baltimore Orioles
After making his big league debut just two games into the season, he has stayed with the Orioles most of
the season, platooning in the infield and outfield. He returned from the disabled list on Aug. 24 after recovering from a bacterial infection and is hitting .210 with four home runs and 11 RBIs in 65 games. He brings a steady glove with just two errors, as entering the weekend, the Orioles sat atop the AL East tied with the New York Yankees.
Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves
The 6-foot-4 left-hander hasn’t lost since Aug. 19, which was the last of three straight setbacks. In his third year up with the Braves, the native of Chapel Hill, N.C., is settling into the starting rotation. He was 8-10 with a 4.42 ERA and hadn’t allowed a run in his last two starts. The Braves will need him to stay in control — he’s allowed 53 walks, second most on the team — to make an October run. They’ve all but locked up the top NL Wild Card.
David Price, Tampa Bay Rays
The Cy Young candidate leads the American League with a 17-5 record. The three-time All-Star has been dominant with 175 strikeouts, just 54 walks and a 2.54 ERA. The lefty from Murfreesboro skipped his last start due to shoulder soreness but was scheduled to start over the weekend. The Rays will need him. as they are three games behind the Orioles and Yankees for the second AL Wild Card in pursuit of their third straight postseason trip.