PITTSBURGH -- It won't always turn out the way it did on Monday, when Ryan Church came off the bench and delivered a bases-clearing double that carried the Pirates on the way to a thrilling Opening Day win, but the Bucs don't think that clutch pinch-hit was an anomaly either.
Much like the bullpen, the Pirates' bench was significantly retooled this offseason. The club's pinch-hitting core wasn't entirely ineffective last season, finishing with the league's fourth-highest batting average (.267). However, with only one pinch-hit home run and 18 pinch-hit RBIs, the bench also wasn't all that fruitful in run-producing situations.
The Pirates matched one-sixth of that RBI total with one swing of Church's bat on Monday, a promising sign of the weapons the club believes it has.
"It's good when you have some veteran guys on the bench who can swing the bat," manager John Russell said. "We have some guys who can do some things. It's a pretty balanced attack. We'll keep using them in the right situations and try to get as much success out of all of our guys as we can."
Church is a career .247 hitter off the bench, though he did go 4-for-10 in the role last season. Delwyn Young has had the most sustained success in the role, with 30 hits in 102 pinch-hit at-bats. And though he has started for most of his career, Bobby Crosby offers the Pirates an experienced right-handed bat. The experience of the three pinch-hitters is something the Bucs are hopeful will pay dividends throughout the season.
"You just always want to be mentally ready so that when you are called, you don't mess up," Church said. "If you want to sit around and mope and get mad about things that's when things start going bad. As long as you stay positive and are ready to go out there when they call on you, things are going to happen."
With tuneup out of way, McCutchen's ready
PITTSBURGH -- Daniel McCutchen is back in Pittsburgh after making one final spring tune-up in Bradenton, Fla., on Tuesday. After watching Monday's season opener at PNC Park, McCutchen flew back to Florida to throw 60 pitches in an intrasquad game.
The right-hander made his final Grapefruit League appearance last Thursday and needed Tuesday's outing to stay on track for his first regular-season start, which will come against the D-backs on Saturday.
"It went well," McCutchen said. "I felt good. I'm ready to go. I feel good with all of my pitches right now."
The results of Tuesday's outing are inconsequential, considering coaches had to fill some of the spots on the field because not enough players were available. Even rehabbing right-hander Joel Hanrahan played briefly at second. Still, McCutchen used the start to continue focusing on his slider, which he labeled as a "huge pitch" for him this season.
McCutchen fared well throwing the offspeed pitch to right-handed hitters during Spring Training, but he hardly used it against lefty hitters. That changed on Tuesday, when McCutchen threw the pitch more liberally and even struck out two left-handed hitters with it.
Without the need for a fifth starter for much of April, the Pirates still plan on skipping McCutchen twice after he makes his 2010 debut on Saturday. That likely means McCutchen is headed down to Triple-A Indianapolis after the weekend in order to continue pitching on a regular schedule.
Maholm all set for 2010 debut
PITTSBURGH -- Left-hander Paul Maholm is fully recovered from a stomach illness and ready to make his regular-season debut against the Dodgers on Thursday, provided the weather cooperates. Forecasts are calling for it to rain in Pittsburgh throughout the day.
Maholm made his final start of the spring on Saturday, but he did so sick and without much energy. Still, the lefty was able to meet his target of 50 pitches while allowing the Phillies to score only twice off him in three innings. Overall, Maholm allowed 11 earned runs on 24 hits and six walks in 23 Spring Training innings. He struck out 18.
"I would like to have had little better success," Maholm said when asked if he accomplished everything he had set out to this spring. "You understand it's spring, but you'd also like to have success while you're there to kind of carry over. But I felt good. I'm looking forward to getting my start in and seeing where I'm at."
The fact that Maholm had to face the Red Sox or Yankees in five of those seven starts might not have been particularly beneficial for his numbers. However, the lefty also thinks the challenge could be a long-term benefit. It means he has already faced some of baseball's more formidable lineups, which could work to Maholm's advantage as he takes on a Dodgers lineup that is almost identical to the one that led Los Angeles to a National League-best .270 batting average in 2009.
"I think it gets your mindset ready for the regular season," Maholm said of drawing the American League East's best five straight times. "Even in spring, those guys throw out lineups where you don't have an easy out. You get to face their starters, and when I made mistakes, I paid for them. That's what happens in the regular season, so I definitely understand how to go through starts, how to handle lineups and how to handle those guys."
Pirates' affiliates start rolling Thursday
PITTSBURGH -- Four of the Pirates' Minor League affiliates will begin play on Thursday, including the organization's new high Class A affiliate in Bradenton, Fla.
Kevin Hart, who wasn't able to earn the fifth spot in the Pirates' rotation, gets the Opening Day start for Triple-A Indianapolis, which begins its season against the Columbus Clippers. He will be followed in the rotation by top pitching prospect Brad Lincoln, Donnie Veal, Chris Jakubauskas and Brian Burres.
Indianapolis also touts top position prospects Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata, who will start at third and in the outfield, respectively.
Out east in Altoona, Pa., the Bucs' Double-A club opens the season against Harrisburg, and it gets the task of facing Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg in his professional debut on Sunday. Right-hander Michael Crotta will be the Opening Day starter for a Curve team that will have notable prospects Tim Alderson, Gorkys Hernandez and Chase d'Arnaud to start the season. Daniel Moskos, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, will come out of the bullpen for Altoona.
In other Minor League news, the Pirates announced a number of recent transactions on Wednesday, including the signings of 12 Latin American players. The organization also revealed a list of 30 Minor Leaguers who have been released since March 3. That list includes pitcher R.J. Rodriguez, who saved 27 games for Class A Lynchburg last season, as well as pitchers Kyle Bloom and Corey Hamman.
PITTSBURGH -- Reliever Joel Hanrahan will begin his Minor League rehab assignment with the high Class A Bradenton Maruaders on Thursday. Hanrahan, who was slowed by a right elbow flexor muscle strain earlier this spring, is scheduled to make that appearance and one other before joining the Pirates on the team's upcoming road trip. ... According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Garrett Jones became the first player in franchise history to homer in his first two at-bats of a season opener. Jones took Dodgers starter Vicente Padilla deep in both the first and third innings in Monday's season-opening win. ... The back-to-back home opener wins for the Pirates are the first since the club was victorious in its first games at Three Rivers Stadium in 1992 and '93.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.