PITTSBURGH - Andy LaRoche is still the Pirates' starting third baseman. It's just that he hasn't been used like a starting third baseman in the early stages of the season.
LaRoche was on the bench again Monday as the Pirates beat the Houston Astros 7-0 in the home opener at PNC Park. He has been held out of the lineup three times in the first seven games in favor of veteran utility infielder Ramon Vazquez.
LaRoche has been the biggest disappointment of the early part of the season as he is 0-for-14 while making three errors. However, manager John Russell insisted that LaRoche is still the primary third baseman.
"Andy is going to play," Russell said. "He's going to continue to work through [his hitting and fielding slumps] and we're going to let him watch some games for the bench to relax. We have the luxury of having guys on our bench who can step in and do a good job while we give Andy a chance to get on track."
The Pirates had hoped things would be different for LaRoche this season after he hit just .152 with nine errors in 49 games last season after they acquired him from the Los Angeles Dodgers in a July 31 trade. LaRoche admitted he put too much pressure on himself to justify being involved in a three-team trade in which the Pirates shipped their best player, left fielder Jason Bay, to the Boston Red Sox.
"I'm sure Andy is putting pressure on himself but I don't worry about him putting pressure on himself anymore than any of our other players," Russell said. "Freddy Sanchez puts pressure on himself when he's not playing well. Everybody does to some extent."
Russell said he also decided to bench LaRoche on Monday because Vazquez came into the game 4-for-7 in his career against Astros starter Brian Moehler. Vazquez went 1-for-3 with a walk.
Touching tribute: Much of the pre-game ceremony was devoted to honoring Pittsburgh police officers Eric G. Kelly, Paul J. Sciullo II and Stephen J. Mayhle, who were killed on April 4 during an ambush and subsequent standoff in the Stanton Heights section of the city.
A moment of silence was held and Amazing Grace was played by bagpipers while police officers lined the warning track in the outfield. The Pirates players and coaches wore Pittsburgh Bureau of Police caps as well as a "PBP" patch on the left sleeve on their jerseys.
The Pirates will auction the authenticated and singed caps and jerseys on Pirates.com. All proceeds will go to the Pittsburgh Police Fallen Heroes Fund to support the officers' families.
"There was a lot of emotion," Russell said. "It was a great day to be able to honor them but also a sad day because they lost their lives in the line of duty. We're a part of Pittsburgh and I'm glad, as a team, that we could do something to help."
Injury update: Center fielder Nate McLouth was shaken up when he slammed into the wall in the first inning while chasing a double by Miguel Tejada. However, McLouth stayed in the game and said afterward that he was fine.
Astros starting pitcher Brian Moehler left during a five-run third inning with a sprained right knee.
Buzzelli honored: Guy Buzzelli was posthumously given the Pride of the Pirates award, which goes annually to a member of the Pirates organization who has demonstrated the qualities of sportsmanship, dedication and outstanding character during a lifetime of service.
Buzzelli spent 20 years as a member of the Pirates Gold Club, a volunteer group that aids the organization in ticket sales. Buzzelli, who was confined to a wheelchair because of muscular dystrophy, organized a golf tournament last year that raised $27,000 for research into the disease.
Fielding of dreams: The Pirates have gone four straight games and 41 consecutive innings without an error after making five in the first three games.
Up next: The three-game series resumes at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday after an off day today with right-hander Ross Ohlendorf (0-1, 3.00) starting for the Pirates against left-hander Mike Hampton (0-1, 5.40).
Ohlendorf is 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA in four career games, two starts, against the Astros. Hampton is 10-3 with a 2.71 ERA in 22 career games, 16 starts, against the Pirates.
Pirates infielder/outfielder Eric Hinske is 2-for-3 (.667) off Hampton with one double and one home run while shortstop Jack Wilson is 1-for-9 (.111). Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada is 5-for-8 (.625) off Ohlendorf while right fielder Hunter Pence is 1-for-6 (.167) with one strikeout.
The game will be televised by Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh and broadcast on the Pirates Radio Network and XM Ch. 186.
It will also be Buc Night with $1 hot dogs, popcorn and 12-ounce Pepsi products.