Martin's improvement with RISP key for Pirates

Martin's improvement with RISP key for Pirates

PITTSBURGH -- At some point between seasons, Jeff Branson, taking over as the Pirates' primary hitting coach, distributed questionnaires to his players. They were asked to list three personal things on which they wanted to improve from 2013 to 2014.

Russell Martin put down, "Hitting better with men in scoring position."

"Just the thought of wanting to be better at that was the first step," Martin said Saturday, the day after his latest heroics.

As manager Clint Hurdle often says, "It all starts with a thought."

Martin's go-ahead three-run homer in the eighth inning Friday night put his average with runners in scoring position at a Majors-leading .380. He has converted 92 at-bats with RISP into 56 RBIs.

"I know it wasn't nearly as good last year," Martin said, quickly adding, "but I have no idea [what it was]. I don't want to know."

So this is just between us: In 2013, Martin batted .192 in 120 at-bats with RISP, driving in 30 runs.

"It became a matter of trusting the approach. It really comes down to not trying to do too much," Martin said. "Taking the base hit, not trying to hit a homer or a double. In that situation, pitchers get picky -- they don't give you as many pitches to hit. So it all boils down to plate discipline. Not giving them strikes, making them throw the ball over the plate."

Martin's Friday night home run not only beat the Brewers, it helped clinch a postseason berth for the Dodgers, his club for the first five years of his career.

"Yeah. Crazy. I saw that mentioned on Twitter," Martin said with a broad smile.

Worth noting

• In the Pirates' 10-2 run since Sept. 6, entering Saturday's game, their starting pitchers were 9-1. The nine wins match the rotation's total through the season's first 54 games, during which relievers earned the 16 other wins.

"The starters have challenged themselves to keep the bar set," Hurdle said. "Everyone is saying, 'I don't want to be the guy to break the chain.'"

• Hurdle attributed the closing success of Mark Melancon (31 saves) to the fact "he throws strikes. He's always working from ahead in the count."

Walking the first batter he faces is the absolute bane of a closer's existence. How many times has that happened to Melancon in his 69 appearances this season? Twice.

• On Friday night, the Bucs won for the 14th time when scoring exactly four runs. The flip side: The Colorado Rockies are 0-12 when they score four.

• As Travis Snider informed Jeff Locke, the Pirates "own the eighth inning." The Bucs' run differential that frame of plus-24 (83-59) is their greatest of any inning.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.