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Pregame: Alvarez takes baby steps

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PHOENIX — In one stretch during the series last weekend against the Dodgers, Pedro Alvarez walked in five out of six plate appearances. Over the past two weeks, he’s bumped up his on-base percentage 10 points to .270. During batting practice last night, Alvarez slammed two balls off the massive video scoreboard in center field at Chase Field. In the fifth inning, he drove center fielder Chris Young to the wall for a deep, deep fly out. While neither of those examples are any reason to crack open a bottle of bubbly, they still are signs of progress.

»»» The Pirates have been mulling holding their Winter Caravan and Piratfest in mid-December instead of the usual late-January dates. That theoretically would boost ticket sales, encouraging folks to slip a mini season-ticket plan in somebody’s stocking. It also would make things a bit easier on the players, who in the past have gone straight from the Caravan and Piratefest to spring training.

»»» It hasn’t been officially announced yet, but top draft pick Gerrit Cole will pitch in the Arizona Fall League.

»»The Pirates pitching staff has a 3.98 ERA — a dramatic improvement from last year, when it was a league-worst 5.00. That drop of 1.02 points is the best in the majors, ahead of gains by the Diamondbacks (who improved by 1.01 points) and the Brewers (who improved by 0.98 point). At the end of July, the Pirates’ ERA was 3.43, but the staff has posted a 5.22 ERA over the past 48 games.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Pirates (68-86) – 1. Alex Presley cf, 2. Neil Walker 2b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Derrek Lee 1b, 5. Ryan Doumit c, 6. Garrett Jones 1b, 7. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Charlie Morton rhp (9-10, 3.81)

Diamondbacks (89-65) – 1. Willie Bloomquist ss, 2. Aaron Hill 2b, 3. Justin Upton rf, 4. Miguel Montero c, 5. Paul Goldschmidt 1b, 6. Chris Young cf, 7. Ryan Roberts 3b, 8. Gerardo Parra lf, 9. Daniel Hudson rhp (3.39)

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