The Bucs' outfielder leads the team in hitting this year with a .351 average.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
PITTSBURGH -- The 2001 baseball season is turning out to be much better than expected for Pirates outfielder John Vander Wal.
However, the team's leading hitter is not surprised that he's off to such a fine start.
"I don't consider this as better than expected," said Vander Wal, whose .351 batting average is far and away the best in Pittsburgh's lineup.
Last year, Vander Wal was acquired from the San Diego Padres in the Al Martin deal. He went on to enjoy a career year in just about every offensive category, including a .299 average, in 134 games.
Vander Wal's 115 hits included 29 doubles and 24 homers. He drove in 94 runs and was by far the Pirates' best pinch-hitter, with three homers and 10 RBIs.
Who more deserved to be the Bucs' everyday right-fielder this year?
Derek Bell, according to Pirates general manager Cam Bonifay, who signed the 32-year-old free agent to a two-year, $9 million contract in the off-season.
Wanted to be traded: The signing irked Vander Wal to the point where he suggested a trade was in order.
Luckily for the Pirates, Bonifay didn't make a move because Vander Wal, whose started the season on the bench, is the one Pittsburgh batter consistently producing at the plate.
"I expected to play -- I never relinquished that," Vander Wal said. "I always expected to play every day against right-handers.
"I'm not sure what their approach was to it, but my frame of mind was I wanted to be out there every day."
Vander Wal has eight doubles and four homers, and his 15 RBIs are second only to the Aramis Ramirez's 18.
"It was the most at-bats that I've had in April," Vander Wal said. "I'm glad I got off to a good start but actually there were more situations where I could have succeeded in and done better.
"I'm grateful for the start that I've had, but you always look at the places where you didn't succeed and try to find how to improve on that."
Bell struggles: Bell, on the other hand, has struggled since the season opened four weeks ago.
His .146 batting average includes just one extra-base hit, a double.
Tendinitis in center-fielder Adrian Brown's right shoulder opened the door for Vander Wal's extra playing time.
Brown played eight games in April before going on the 15-day disabled list.
For a few games, Manager Lloyd McClendon moved left-fielder Brian Giles to center, the position he played most of 2000.
Vander Wal has moved up to every-day status, playing outfield or first base when Kevin Young sits.
He responded with a nine-game hitting streak that was snapped Sunday in San Diego. During the streak, Vander Wal hit .500, with seven doubles, a triple, two homers and nine RBIs.
Tuesday against the Giants, Vander Wal grounded into a double play, struck out and grounded out in his first three at-bats.
But with the bases loaded in the eighth inning, Vander Wal smoked Aaron Fultz's first pitch past first base for a two-run double to cut San Francisco's lead to 11-6.