PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Pirates were devastated when Oneil Cruz broke his left ankle a little over two weeks ago.
The 24-year-old shortstop is the Pirates’ most-gifted player with his vast array of tools. He also plays one of the sport’s most important positions.
Furthermore, the Pirates also lost their leadoff hitter when Cruz went down on April 9. That figured to create a large void.
However, the Pirates have gotten by just fine by inserting third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes at the top of the order. An added benefit of that move is that Hayes has snapped out of his early-season hitting funk.
Hayes has batted leadoff in 10 of the Pirates’ last 11 games while getting a day off in that span In those 10 games, he has hit .317/.383/.561 with three doubles, two triples and one home run.
Most importantly, the Pirates are 9-1 in those games. Thus, Hayes is a big reason why the Pirates are off to a surprising 16-7 start after finishing last in the National League Central each of the past four seasons and losing at least 100 games each of the past two years.
The Pirates, who have won seven games in a row, are off Monday. They open a three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night at PNC Park.
Hayes was hitting just .149/.184/.213 in 12 games before the lineup switch. Yet he is not trying to read too much into the effects of being moved to the top of the order.
“I haven’t really thought about it a whole lot,” Hayes said. “Just trying to get on base and be aggressive in that first at-bat because more times than not you’re gonna get a lot of fastballs in that leadoff spot. Each time I’ve gone up there I’ve thought, ‘I want to swing at this first pitch, but if it’s not there, take it. Wait for a good pitch.’ It’s been nice being up then re and trying to do whatever I can to get on base.
While Cruz got most of the plate appearances in the leadoff spot in the early days of the season, the right-handed hitting Hayes was batting first when the Pirates faced left-handers.
Manager Derek Shelton has no reservations about letting Ke’Bryan Hayes hit No. 1 against right-handers, especially with Cruz expected to be out until at least August. However, Shelton also wants to maintain lineup flexibility.
“It started just because of the left-handers,” Shelton said. “Then, he had consistent at-bats and then we had a right-hander that was a right-handed dominant lineup person, so he was the right person to fit there. And then, he’s continued to have consistent bats and we’ve continued to score runs.
“Is there a time where he may not hit there? Yeah, there may be a matchup where he goes back down into five, six, wherever at. But, right now, matchup-based and the way the flow of our lineup’s working, it’s fitting best with him at the top.”
Of course, Shelton doesn’t want to mess around right now with what has been a good thing, especially with the Pittsburgh Pirates holding the best record in the NL.
“If it’s working well, go ahead and continue to roll it out,” Shelton said.