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Moss, LaRoche going in different directions

One arrived from Boston. The other came from Los Angeles. They converged in Pittsburgh as two highly-regarded prospects.

But, lately, they have been headed in opposite directions.

Left fielder Brandon Moss and third baseman Andy LaRoche – the two position players acquired in the Jason Bay deal – are dealing differently with their transition from big-market back-ups into everyday players with the Pirates.

Moss fought past a slow start to hit .368 with two home runs in his past five games entering Tuesday night’s action.

LaRoche is stuck in an 0-for-23 slump and is batting .127 (8 for 63) in 19 games since arriving from the Dodgers. He got benched in favor of Doug Mientkiewicz on Tuesday. LaRoche also has committed six errors at third base.

“It’s not the first time I’ve been in a slump and struggled at the plate,” LaRoche said. “You’ve got to fight through it.”

One positive sign – if it’s possible to find a bright spot in an 0-for-23 skid – is that LaRoche didn’t strike out during the first 19 at-bats of the slump. He managed to put 19 balls in play, but always ended with a zero in the hit column.

“It was frustrating,” he said. “I could have easily had six or seven hits. I see these guys getting these broken-bat hits. ‘C’mon, let me get one of those.’ ”

Pirates manager John Russell looks more at the player who was rated the game’s 14th-best prospect by Baseball Prospectus last season, and the Dodgers’ No. 2 prospect.

“Everything about Andy is encouraging,” Russell said. “I know he’s not getting hits and people equate success with results. We’re not looking at it like that. We look at what he brings. He can hit the ball out of the park. He’s got an exceptional arm. He’s got a good glove. He needs to work on his footwork.

“He’s a young player that’s going through some adjustments. He’s getting used to being out there every day. But as an evaluator, you look at what he brings, and he’s got the tools you are looking for.”

Russell said Xavier Nady showed a lot of the same traits during his woeful spring training and ended up being one of the Pirates’ top hitters before being traded to the Yankees.

“(Nady) was really struggling,” Russell said. “He turned into a very dominant hitter. I see a lot of the same things in Andy. It’s a process. He’s a young player. But the tools are there. It’s up to us to get them out.”

LaRoche, 24, has been working with hitting coach Don Long on his swing. The priority is keeping his head still. LaRoche went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts against the Cubs on Monday night, but said he is more comfortable.

“I felt a lot more relaxed,” he said. “Inside, I know it’s coming. It’s getting pretty close. When I first started here, upper-body and lower-body weren’t working together. The timing was off. My head was moving too much. We got my lower-body figured out.”

While LaRoche is struggling, Moss is starting to show why he was the MVP at Triple-A Pawtucket last year. The former Boston Red Sox farmhand went 2 for 3 with a deep home run to right and a double on Monday night. He singled off Carlos Zambrano in the first inning on Tuesday. It is a marked turnaround from Moss’ first week in the NL. In his first six games with the Pirates, he went 5 for 20 with 11 strikeouts. He was rusty after missing five weeks earlier this season following an appendectomy.

“I’m just starting to get my timing going and get my approach back and starting to feel good at the plate,” he said.

Moss has shown toughness and resiliency. He missed only two games after suffering a painful ankle sprain 10 days ago.

“We like the way he’s swinging the bat,” Russell said. “He’s starting to see the ball better. He’s getting himself in better position. He’s taken advantage of some balls up in the zone and he’s hit them hard.”

–John Grupp

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