Triple Crown chase

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No one has won baseball’s Triple Crown — leading the league in batting average, home runs and RBI — since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. The last NL winner was Joe Medwick in 1937. Of the 14 players who’ve done it, 12 are in the Hall of Fame.

Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols leads the NL with 39 homers (four ahead of Joey Votto) and 109 RBI (two ahead of Carlos Gonzalez). But Pujols trails Gonzalez (.339) by 32 points in the batting average race — and that’s a lot of ground to make up in a short time.

“It’s so difficult to do,” manager John Russell said of winning the Triple Crown. “The guys who chase it are either the Albert Pujols type or they’re having a phenomenal year. To get all three of them is tough, because there’s always that guy somewhere who’s hitting for a high average or who all of the sudden is having a monster home run year.”

Will we ever see another Triple Crown winner?

“I don’t know … yeah, it’s gonna happen,” Russell said. “There’s only a few records I don’t think will ever be broken, like Cy Young’s (511 career wins). It will happen. There’s so many good players now, somebody’s going to click and do it. But it’s extremely difficult.”

»»» Stats, streaks and slumps: The Pirates are gunning tonight for their first five-game winning streak since Aug. 17-22, 2009. … The Pirates’ streak of games with at least one extra-base hit is up to 33. … Andrew McCutchen has reached base in 16 straight games. … Garrett Jones has reached base in each of his past 11 starts. … Pedro Alvarez has not homered since Sept. 5.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Cardinals (76-72) – 1. Skip Schumaker 2b, 2. Jon Jay rf, 3. Albert Pujols 1b, 4. Matt Holliday lf, 5. Colby Rasmus cf, 6. Daniel Descalso 3b, 7. Matt Pagnozzi c, 8. Brendan Ryan ss, 9. Kyle Lohse (4-7, 6.75) rhp

Pirates (52-98) – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jose Tabata lf, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Garrett Jones 1b, 5. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 6. John Bowker rf, 7. Ronny Cedeno ss, 8. Chris Snyder c, 9. Charlie Morton (1-11, 8.61) rhp

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Pirates’ AFL reps finalized

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The Pirates have rounded out the group they’ll send to the Arizona Fall League by adding left-hander Justin Wilson and right-handers Aaron Pribanic and Brian Leach. Management waited until after the minor league playoffs were over and final season pitch/innings counts were tallied before naming their three pitchers for the elite prospect league.

Wilson, a lefty who was a fifth-round draft pick in 2008, went 11-8 with a 3.09 ERA for Double-A Altoona. Leach (9-9, 3.85) and Pribanic (7-6, 3.33) both pitched for High-A Bradenton. Pribanic, a third-round pick in 2008,  joined the Pirates as part of the Jack Wilson trade last season. Leach was the Pirates’ 25-rounder in 2008.

The Pirates also are sending four position players — catcher Tony Sanchez, outfielder Andrew Lambo and infielders Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison — to the AFL.

All seven players will be on the Mesa Solar Sox roster. Play begins Oct. 12.

»»» Actress Lauren Holly will throw out the first pitch before Sunday’s final home game. Holly stars in the movie “Chasing 3,000,” which is about a road trip two brothers take in 1972 to see Roberto Clemente’s 3,000th career hit.

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Four in a row?

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Maybe the fifth time is a charm.

The Pirates have tried — unsuccessfully — four times already this season to string together four victories. They’ll ride another three-game winning streak into tonight’s game against the Cardinals.

The last time the Bucs won four in a row was Aug. 17-22, 2009.

»»» Tonight will be Paul Maholm’s 31st start of the year. He’s the first Pirates lefty to start at least 30 games in three straight seasons since Bob Veale, who did it seven seasons in a row from 1964-70.

»»» Stats, streaks and slumps: The Pirates have won three of their last four series at PNC Park. Overall, their series record at home this year is 10-11-3. … The Pirates have recorded at least one extra-base hit in a season-high 32 straight games. That matches their longest streak last season.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Cardinals (76-72) – 1. Tyler Greene 2b, 2. Allen Craig rf, 3. Albert Pujols 1b, 4. Matt Holliday lf, 5. Yadier Molina c, 6. Colby Rasmus cf, 7. Pedro Feliz 3b, 8. Jake Westbrook (8-10, 4.22) rhp, 9. Brendan Ryan ss

Pirates (51-98) – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jose Tabata lf, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Garrett Jones 1b, 5. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 6. Ryan Doumit c, 7. John Bowker rf, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Paul Maholm (7-15, 5.36) lhp

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Opportunity for Bowker

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This would be a great time for John Bowker to start cranking out hits. The starters at first base and right field — the two positions Bowker plays — are nursing potentially season-ending injuries, so he figures to get a lot of playing time over the final 14 games of the season.

Saturday, Bowker went 3 for 4, including a two-run homer. Over the previous few games, he’d hit a several balls hard … but right at fielders.

“I’ve kind of been unlucky, but tonight I squared up some balls good,” Bowker said.

Bowker’s home run came on a 1-1 fastball from Barry Enright. But Bowker wasn’t sure at first the ball would clear the center field wall.

“When I hit it, I didn’t really know, because it was kind of low,” Bowker said. “I knew it would at least be over (center fielder Ryan Church’s) head, but it kept carrying.”

Bowker has driven in at least one run in four of his past five games, and has nudged his batting average up to, ahem, .205.

Although he struggled at the plate after being traded to the Pirates, Bowker didn’t make any adjustments to his swing. He figured the hits would start to come eventually.

“It’s a matter of playing consistently,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been a little bit late on some balls. I’m just trying to be more aggressive.”

Right field is a question mark next season for the Pirates, as Lastings Milledge is no sure bet as an everyday player in 2011. Bowker arrived with the rep of a being a “Four-A” player — a guy who tears it up in Triple-A, but can’t find that success in the majors.

Milledge is out the rest of the season with a strained oblique. First baseman Garrett Jones is on the shelf with a sore shoulder. Between those two spots, Bowker will get plenty of time to audition for a bigger role next season.

Lineups for this afternoon’s game:

Diamondbacks (59-90) – 1. Stephen Drew ss, 2, Ryan Roberts lf, 3. Chris Young cf, 4. Mark Reynolds 3b, 5. Adam LaRoche 1b, 6. Tony Abreu 2b, 7. John Hester c, 8. Gerardo Parra rf, 9. Daniel Hudson (6-1, 1.67) rhp

Pirates (50-98) – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jose Tabata lf, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 5. Ryan Doumit c, 6. John Bowker 1b, 7. Brandon Moss rf, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Zach Duke (7-14, 5.78) lhp

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Milledge likely done for the season

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When Pirates right fielder Lastings Milledge did not start any games last week against the Mets, the New York media rumbled that he’d ducked his former team.

Earlier today, Pirates manager John Russell revealed the reason for Milledge’s absence: Milledge has a strained muscle in his left side and likely is done for the season.

Milledge was injured Tuesday during an extra round of batting practice. He did not hear a snap or pop, but left the cage in significant pain.

“We’re hoping he can play before the end of the year, but it’s pretty sore,” Russell said. “We’ll see if we can get him ready before the season’s over.”

Milledge is pessimistic about his chances.

“It’s going to be tricky,” he said. “It’s going to be real tough. I don’t think I can generate enough force (swinging a bat) to play. I don’t know how to play 80 percent. I’m going to continue to help guys in meetings and stuff like that.”

In the Pirates’ media guide, Milledge lists New York as his favorite road city. But some folks there assumed the worst when he made just one pinch-hit appearance in the four-game series.

“They were ragging on Milledge for not playing, saying he was hiding,” Russell said. “He was unable to play. I didn’t want to say anything, but I didn’t want him to get bad press, either.”

Milledge has not played since last Sunday in Cincinnati. He’s hit safely in 19 of his past 24 games, including 17 of his last 19 starts.

The Mets drafted Milledge in the first round in 2003. He played parts of two seasons in New York, but hit just .257 and frequently clashed with management and his teammates.

Milledge was traded to Washington in November 2007. The Pirates acquired him in June 2009.

Mets beat writers often approach Milledge and try to get him to talk about his days in New York. Milledge always refuses.

“I wasn’t avoiding them,” he said. “I just don’t want about being a Met. I want to talk about what’s going on now. I want to move forward.”

In fact, Milledge had quite a bit to say today about his present status and possible future — or lack thereof — with the Pirates. Much more about that in Sunday’s Trib …

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An extra inning for Hanrahan

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Joel Hanrahan tossed a quick eighth inning — getting three outs on just seven pitches — last night against Arizona, then went back out to start the ninth. It was only the third time in 66 outings this season that Hanrahan pitched more than one inning.

“I guess if I want to keep it to just one inning, I’ve got to keep it to 15 pitches or something,” Hanrahan said with a laugh. “I felt fine and I wanted the ball that next inning.”

After getting a strikeout and walking two batters, Hanrahan gave way to Evan Meek in the ninth. Meek got two easy outs and wound up the winning pitcher when Ronny Cedeno hit a walkoff single in the bottom of the inning.

Meek and Hanrahan will split the late-game duties the rest of the season, a tuneup for their spring training showdown for the closer’s job.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Diamondbacks (59-89) – 1. Stephen Drew ss, 2, Kelly Johnson 2b, 3. Mark Reynolds 3b, 4. Miguel Montero c, 5. Adam LaRoche 1b, 6. Ryan Church cf, 7. Brandon Allen lf, 8. Gerardo Parra rf, 9. Barry Enright (6-4, 3.39)

Pirates (49-98) – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jose Tabata lf, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 5. Ryan Doumit rf, 6. John Bowker 1b, 7. Ronny Cedeno ss, 8. Chris Snyder c, 9. James McDonald (3-5, 4.13) rhp

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Duke to stay in rotation

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It was an interesting night at Citi Field, mostly in the hours before the game started. With bad weather on the way, the tarp came out and the Citi Field folks delayed opening the gates to fans. There was talk that the game might not be played at all based on what the radar was showing.

They did open the gates, of course, and then the storm hit. This was not just rain. It came out later that there had been funnel clouds spotted over Staten Island and a possible tornado in Brooklyn, with high winds and lots and lots of trees down, disrupting train and subway service and delaying flights at the airports. One woman was actually killed in Queens on the Grand Central Parkway when a tree landed on her car.

At the ballpark, not only were the lightning and thunder intense, but the skies also got so dark and the rain so heavy that you couldn’t see the other side of the field. The scoreboard, video board, big Pepsi-Cola sign in right field. … couldn’t see any of it. What you could see was rain literally swirling in circles, changing directions, going sideways, then what looked like papers or plates or other concession stand goods blowing horizontally from the concourse across the seats and out into the field.

For storm buffs – which obviously I am – it was a heck of a one to witness.

But enough about that.

Everything died down and, although the rain came back, the game was played, to the familiar tune of another Pirates road loss. The following is the full feature on Zach Duke staying in the starting rotation that was going to run in the event that the game was wiped out. Condensed for Friday’s notes in the print edition, here’s the full-length version for the blog…..

FLUSHING, N.Y. — Zach Duke isn’t done yet.

Two days after John Russell said they’d have to decide whether to keep Duke in the rotation, the manager said on Thursday that the left-hander will start on Sunday against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“The kid’s worked hard,” Russell said. “We’d like to give him the opportunity to straighten things out.”

Questions about Duke’s immediate future with the Pirates came up after another dreadful outing against the New York Mets on Tuesday. He lasted just 3 1/3 innings and allowed eight runs, seven earned, and nine hits with one walk and four strikeouts. It was the second breakdown in a row for the 27-year-old lefty, who was yanked with the bases loaded and no one out in the second inning against the Atlanta Braves on Sept. 8. He gave up six runs, four earned, in the one inning.

Russell said they’ve been trying to get Duke back to his old self, working on tempo and arm speed and making his delivery less choppy and more aggressive.

But the problem is also in Duke’s head.

His side sessions between starts have been excellent, both Russell and pitching coach Ray Searage said.

He just hasn’t been able to carry it over into games.

“The biggest thing has been not trusting himself, trying to make his stuff better rather than using the stuff we had in the sides,” Searage said. “He’s trying to make the slider sharp that much more or the fastball sink that much more or the changeup be that much more of a deception pitch and he got out of himself. We’re trying to help him find his identity to be Zach again.”

Duke’s sitting at a 7-14 record, four wins shy of his career-high 11 set in 2009, and two shy of a career-high in losses, also set last year. He’s also on pace to have his highest ERA, currently at 5.78. In 2007, Duke was 3-8 with a 5.53 ERA.

He has just two wins in his last nine starts dating back to the beginning of August.

Searage knows what it’s like to get into the habit of thinking too much on the mound. He also knows it doesn’t work.

“I’ll go on past experience, you’re ready for a padded room because you’re trying to search for answers and it’s hard to see what’s happening on the outside, never mind what you’re trying to handle on the inside,” Searage said. “Your mind’s racing a mile a minute and you’re trying to make adjustments on the fly because you know you can get guys out and all of a sudden it’s not playing that way.”

Searage is trying to get Duke to pare the job down to the simplest of terms, focusing on one and only one pitch, executing that pitch and then turning the page and moving on to the next pitch.

And only that one pitch.

How close he thinks Duke may be to working his way out of it, Searage wouldn’t say.

“Let’s say he’s closer,” Searage said.

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Jones still working on getting swing back

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Garrett Jones knew his numbers weren’t good at the plate in July and certainly in August, but he didn’t have to consult them for proof that his swing was off.

He could feel it.

“I was fighting myself, and then you start thinking at the plate and once you start thinking you have no chance up there,” Jones said on Wednesday. “I just had a bad habit and couldn’t get out of it quickly and that’s why the consistency went downhill.”

Jones says he’s still fighting to stay short with his swing, but he’s starting to get the plane back to where it was earlier in the year. He’s starting to hit more line drives and using the whole field more, a good indicator that he’s figuring it out. He had back-to-back multi-hit games in the first two games of the Mets series for the first time since July 21-22, and has hits in six of seven going into tonight’s game.

“I’m just trying to be as consistent as I can and keep doing that until I don’t have to think about it anymore,” Jones said.

Jones hit .302 in May, .330 in June, .248 in July and dropped to .144 in August. He’s back up to .273 so far in September. His overall average is at .249, but Jones still leads the team with 77 RBI (Neil Walker is second with 53) and 20 home runs (Chris Snyder is in second with 14) and is second in hits with 133, just seven behind Andrew McCutchen.

Here are tonight’s lineups:
For the Pirates — McCutchen 8, Tabata 7, Walker 4, Jones 3, Alvarez 5, Bowker 9, Cedeno 6, Snyder 2, Maholm 1.

For the Mets — Reyes 6, Pagan 9, Beltran 8, Wright 5, Davis 3, Evans 7, Blanco 2, Tejada 4, Mejia 1

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Duke looking to rebound

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John Russell’s looking for a good game from Zach Duke tonight, and one would have to imagine Duke’s hoping for the same thing.

Pirates starting pitchers have put up an ERA of 2.55 over the last seven games (12 earned runs in 42.1 innings pitched), with quality starts in six of them. The lone exception, of course, would be Duke’s last outing, a disaster that lasted only one inning last Wednesday when Duke gave up four earned runs.

Duke is 4-5 in 11 starts since coming off the disabled list at the All-Star break, and the Pirates are still looking for their first win at Citi Field.

Here are tonight’s lineups:
For the Pirates — Mccutchen 8, Tabata 7, Walker 4, Jones 3, Alvarez 5, Doumit 9, Cedeno 6, Snyder 2, Duke 1

For the Mets — Reyes 6, Pagan 9, Beltran 8, Davis 3, Wright 5, Evans 7, Blanco 2, Tejada 4, Dickey 1

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Better things from Morton

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CINCINNATI — Charlie Morton pitched well last night. No, really.

Things could’ve blown up on him in the second inning, when the Reds loaded the bases with none out. But after Drew Stubbs’ sacrifice fly, Morton got Miguel Cairo to ground into an inning-ending double play. Earlier this season, that kind of inning would’ve mushroomed into a three-, five- or seven-run nightmare.

What was the difference this time? “I wasn’t worried about it,” Morton said. “I’m standing out there and it looks like the same old story, but in my mind, it wasn’t. That’s the only way I can describe it. We’re working on me going one pitch at a time.”

»»» Kudos to Double-A Altoona, which is in the Eastern League title series for the first time since 2004. Veteran lefty Andy Pettite, who’s on a rehab assignment, is expected to start for the Trenton Yankees in Tuesday’s series opener. First pitch is 6:30 p.m. at Blair County Ballpark.

»»» Stats, streaks and slumps: The Pirates are 4-7 in extra innings. … Pedro Alvarez went 0 for 4 last night, snapping his seven-game hitting streak. … Jose Tabata notched his 100th hit. He and Neil Walker (108 hits) are the first Pirates rookie teammates to each have at least 100 hits in a season since Tony Womack (178 hits) and Jose Guillen (133) in 1997. … The Pirates are 40-2 this year when leading after eight innings.

Lineups for this afternoon’s game:

Pirates (47-94) – 1. Andrew McCutchen 8, 2. Alex Presley rf, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 5. John Bowker 1b, 6. Ryan Doumit rf, 7. Lastings Milledge lf, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Brian Burres (3-3, 5.75) lhp

Reds (81-61) – 1. Brandon Phillips 2b, 2. Orlando Cabrera ss, 3. Joey Votto 1b, 4. Jonny Gomes lf, 5. Ramon Hernandez c, 6. Miguel Cairo 3b, 7. Drew Stubbs cf, 8. Chris Heisey rf, 9. Johnny Cueto (12-5, 3.45) rhp

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