Alvarez hopes ride stays on the up

Major League Baseball competition is a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs, peaks and valleys, and highs and lows for just about every player.

And perhaps no other player on the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates’ roster is as familiar with the vicissitudes of the game as third baseman Pedro Alvarez.

Chosen by the Pirates with baseball’s second overall draft pick in 2008, the Vanderbilt University product ascended quickly through the team’s minor league system and hit 16 homers and drove in 64 runs in 95 games with the Bucs in 2010 after a call-up from Class AAA Indianapolis.

The next season, 2011, was a vastly different story. Alvarez spent a considerable portion of that season on the disabled list with a quadriceps problem, and batted only .191 with only four homers and 19 RBIs in just 74 games with the Pirates.

Alvarez spent two long stretches of the 2011 season in Class AAA, but he said Saturday before the Pirates’ exhibition game with the Altoona Curve at sun-splashed Peoples Natural Gas Field that his confidence never waned.

“I still had complete confidence in myself,” Alvarez said. “I always knew that I could play this game, and I just told myself that I was going through a bad stretch.”

Alvarez bounced back in a big way last year, crashing 30 home runs and driving in 85 runs in 149 games, and validating – at least temporarily – the Pirates’ faith in him five years ago.

“Pedro made a lot of progress last season,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Saturday. “The talk about Pedro this past winter was strikingly different than the conversations I had with the media about him the year before. A lot of people thought that Pedro was through, that Pedro was always hurt, that Pedro can’t hit. It’s amazing how everybody’s perspective changes when they get a little tangible evidence [to the contrary.]”

Alvarez, 26, attributed his 2012 success to his relaxing and doing what he knows how to do best.

“Honestly, it was about going out there and trying to enjoy the game,” he said. “I think we practice so much, and we work so much, that sometimes we get caught up in trying to be perfect. We get very results-oriented, and when you start to let go of that, the results end up coming out the way you want them to come out. Just being able to enjoy the game with my teammates was the biggest adjustment that I made.”

Teammates like center fielder Andrew McCutchen enjoyed seeing Alvarez’s resurgence last year.

“He’s a guy who can hit the ball to all parts of the field with power, a guy who can hit for average, and he makes plays defensively at third base that a lot of other people can’t make,” McCutchen said. “That’s why he was drafted where he was drafted – because of what he is capable of doing.”

In a few ways, Alvarez – who was named the Curve’s Most Valuable Player after batting .333 with 13 homers and 40 RBIs during his 60-game fast-track with the club in 2009 – is still a work in progress.

He struck out 180 times in 525 at-bats last year, but those kinds of strikeout numbers are often the tradeoff with free-swinging power hitters.

“It never crosses my mind, unless I’m asked a question about it,” Alvarez said of the strikeout totals. “I’m happy with the way things are going with our team right now, and everybody has a lot of good energy about starting this season.”