The 26-year-old, who is in his first big league spring training camp, went 2-for-4 against the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday, taking lefty Matt Moore deep for a two-run shot in his third at-bat. The homer tied the game at 3, giving him five long balls during Grapefruit League action this spring — the team lead. Hague also is second on the club in RBI with 12, trailing only Garrett Jones (14).
“The moment I try and do too much, that’s when I find myself in trouble,” Hague said. “I’m really just trying to have my focus as narrow as I can. Just getting a good pitch, and letting my hands work. Whenever I try and do too much, my hands don’t get involved. I’ve been working on a lot of early work with [Hitting Coach Gregg] Richie and a lot of the coaches. Just trying to really activate my hands, and its been working.”
Hague, along with Yamaico Navarro and Josh Harrison are battling for the two remaining bench spots to break camp with the club. And so far, he’s making the decision difficult on Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle.
“They told me in the beginning I have a chance to make the club,” Hague said. “I’m just trying to go out there and show them what I got.”
“All three of the guys that were coming in vying for the two opportunities on the bench,” Hurdle said. “Hague has done well, Navarro has done well, Harrison’s done well. Matt’s swinging the bat as well as anybody in camp. It’s not just left-handed pitching, it’s right-handed pitching, it’s extra base hits, it’s good at-bats. He swing off another 10 pitch at-bat before he made an out. He hit a two run homer. He’s done a nice job at the plate. He’s really taking good ownership of his at-bats.”
The Pirates have two games remaining in Florida before heading up to Philadelphia to face the Phillies for a two-game exhibition series. After a workout day scheduled for April 4, Opening Day kicks off on Thursday the 5th at PNC Park. Hague is making a strong case to break camp with the club. He’s currently hitting .383 this spring with 13 hits in his last 31 at-bats (.419 avg). He said he is happy with they way he’s been swinging the bat.
“Definitely happy,” Hague said. “But at the same time, there still is two games left. The roster hasn’t been set yet, so I’m trying to finish this up real strong and just kind of see what happens from there.”
Hague contributes a small tweak in his swing and a simpler approach to his success this spring.
“I’ve always had just little higher hands and kind of just lowered them to a better hitting spot,” Hague said. “Just to really get them going, don’t cheat myself just trying to get a hit. Really just try and drive it. I think a lot of its been working with the mentality of hitting and not settling for less. Just try and drive it.
“When I’m up, I guess I just have a natural hitch. I don’t even feel it, but I watched it on tape. I just lowered by hands, and when I hitch it goes right in that spot and just kind of fire from there.”
The first baseman, who can also play third, will start the season at Triple-A Indianapolis if he doesn’t make the club as a bench/utility guy. During the 2011 season at AAA, Hague led the International League in hits (165), games (141) and at-bats (534) while hitting for a .309 clip with 37 doubles, 12 homers and 75 RBI.
“The worse case scenario [Triple-A],” Hague said. “I feel like I’ve shown them what I got. I gave them a taste of what I can do. Either way, I’m not saying I would be happy [with Triple-A], but at the same time, I showed them what I got and that I can do it.”
Eighth Inning Man
Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle has not decided on who will be the bullpen’s eighth inning man to set up for closer Joel Hanrahan. Candidates for that role could be right-handers Jason Grilli, Evan Meek, and Juan Cruz — all who have had experience in the late innings, and can handle the high-leverage situations.
But Hurdle said after the game on Thursday that the club may not have one this season. Jose Veras set up Hanrahan during the 2011 season.
“There could be a situation where we don’t need a primary eight inning guy,” Hurdle said. “We’re having those conversations inside. They’ll probably be a guy that I’ll go to the first time in the 8th inning, and maybe he’ll get called ‘the primary eight inning guy’. We’ve got a couple guys that we’ve identified”
Cruzin’ in the ‘pen
Although nothing has been made official, right-hander Juan Cruz will make the Pirates bullpen out of spring training as a non-roster player. The 33-year-old has had a solid spring training with the Bucs after signing a minor league deal with Pittsburgh in February.
“It was good to hear that I made the team,” Cruz said. “I’ve been waiting to hear the last couple days on whether I got the opportunity or not. I’ve been trying to do my best…I was working hard. Spring Training this year was really, really good to me. I’m happy.”
Because of his veteran experience in the Majors, Cruz had a clause in his contract where the club had to make a decision by March 29th on if he would make the team, or start the season in Triple-A. They have agreed upon a deal, but the official move to add him to the 40-man roster doesn’t have to be made until April 4th.
“Juan has pitched well this spring,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do coming in. He’s competed well. He’s worked extremely well. He’s gotten outs and been efficient with them.”
“I decided to come here because I saw what they did last year,” Cruz said on why he chose the Pirates over the offseason. “I decided to come here because I think it was a good opportunity for me and for the organization. It’s the right team [for me] right now.”
This spring was not the first year that Cruz had signed a minor league contract with a non-roster big league invite. Cruz also had a similar deal with the Tampa Bay Rays prior to the 2011 season. He posted a 3.88 ERA over 56 appearances with them last year.
Cruz, who could be used in the back-end of the bullpen, said he is unsure of his role with the Pirates, but will be ready whenever the phone rings in the ‘pen.
“I will be ready for whenever they call my name,” Cruz said. “I will be ready to go. I’m not really worried about what my role is with the team, I just want to be ready whenever they say…I’m more confident with my pitches. I use my stuff more confidently. You can always get better, and I feel really, really good now. Especially compared to where I was last year.”
Change of Plans
Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle said less than a week ago that the club was going to make final roster cuts while in Bradenton and before heading to Philadelphia for the exhibition series. Hurdle said he wanted to the players to feel what they needed to feel if they were sent to Triple-A, then be able to regroup and get ready for the season to start.
After the Pirates 3-3 tie to the Tampa Bay Rays, Hurdle said they’ve decided to make final decisions after heading North.
“I just changed my mind,” Hurdle said. “[General Manager] Neal [Huntington] and I talked about it. As we looked, moving [Right-hander Brad Lincoln] to the bullpen to give him an opportunity to look at that. Get the relievers out there a little bit more. Just to give them complete exposure going through.”
The Pirates currently have 30 active players in big league camp and have until April 4th to set their 25-man roster.