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Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Andrew McCutchen gets ready to take the field for the home opener against the Atlanta Braves in Pittsburgh on Friday, April 7, 2017.


There seemed to be more consternation dedicated to Friday’s forecasted weather conditions than the Pittsburgh Pirates’ anemic offensive showing in two games – and losses – at Fenway Park earlier in the week, and that’s OK. 

It is a long season, after all.

Just like that truncated series can be brushed off as a small sample size, so can Friday’s 5-4 win over the Atlanta Braves. 

But when peering into that tiny morsel, there are some encouraging elements that shouldn’t be ignored if they do become season-long trends. Two happened within minutes of each other during the fifth inning.

It took Francisco Cervelli three games to match his home run total from 2016. OK, so Cervelli entered Friday with 18 career home runs in 1,473 at-bats so it’s not like he has a reputation to hop the yard. What was concerning, though, was the lack of jolt in Cervelli’s bat that saw his slugging percentage take a 78-point tumble to .322 over 101 games in 2016 with his final game being the one that saw him go deep. He’s healthy to start 2017, after battling through injuries this past season, which has been evident in his swings and contact this season.

While just three games into 2017, Cervelli already has two extra-base hits against the paltry 16 that that he collected in 326 at-bats in 2016. A return to the form that Cervelli displayed through most of 2015 will be key in bolstering a lineup that certainly appears to be top-heavy if individual 2016 results hold over in 2017 – even if the obvious power numbers aren’t impressive on paper.

“I never had a season with more than seven home runs,” Cervelli said. “I just feel healthy. I can handle my barrel the way I want to. That’s the important thing.

“I’ve got to keep learning. And you know, if I can hit 40 homers, then I’m happy to.”

His home run, off a 1-2 pitch by Braves reliever Josh Collmenter, made it 4-1 just a few tosses after David Freese led off the fifth with a 2-2 blast to center field. It was the key point of a 1-for-4 day that kept his early-season average at .250.

“The most important thing is that we got the W (Friday),” Cervelli said. “I don’t care if I hit the homer today … But yes, I am happy. It’s a good feeling.”

Speaking of Mr. Freese …

For the time being, Freese may have to be a surrogate to Jung Ho Kang’s production. Freese has certainly taken the opportunity by the horns while Kang is not with the Pirates due to visa-related issues. While Kang played in only 103 games in 2016, he delivered 21 home runs and 62 RBIs in 318 at-bats. Freese, on the other hand, carried a higher average at .270 over 437 at-bats with lower totals in home runs (13) and RBIs (55).

Freese’s home run in the fifth landed in the Braves’ bullpen, where Collmenter had just come from in relief of Mike Foltynewicz and Eric O’Flaherty, who helped the Braves dance out of danger an inning before.

The hot corner belongs to Freese, which may carry some pressure to park baseballs like Kang. If that’s the case, Freese isn’t going to try to match the Korean slugger’s approach to hitting.

“If I start trying to hit balls like (Kang), I’m going to get myself in trouble,” Freese said. “I’m just going to try to be me. You can get hot now and again. You can turn the page and get into a slump. But you just gotta keep showing up and do the work.

“I think the main goal for me is to be me and try to do what I do as best as I can.”

Shawn Curtis is the sports editor for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5085. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnCurtis430.​

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