SARASOTA, Fla. -- While the focus of manager Clint Hurdle's rotation announcement on Thursday was on his decision to name Kevin Correia the team's Opening Day starter, he also made Charlie Morton's inclusion in the rotation official.
It had been assumed for a while that Morton was going to fill the vacancy, given how well he's pitched this spring and how little Scott Olsen has been able to do. But now Morton has some tangible assurance - an April 4 matchup against the Cardinals.
"I feel different from last year in the sense that I feel more confident going into the season," Morton said. "I think there were some questions last year in my mind going into the season, but I think getting beat up last year kind of taught me a lot of things. I'm really looking forward to getting on the mound. I'm really excited."
Morton has stood out among the Pirates' starters this spring. He has pitched as well as anyone, and the Pirates are hopeful that his results - two earned runs allowed on nine hits in 14 innings - are a reflection of where he's headed.
Working with pitching coach Ray Searage, Morton has done everything he can to erase the disappointment and frustration he endured in 2010. A year after winning only two games and posting a 7.47 ERA in 17 starts, Morton has found success through a change in his arm angle and with the help of his sinker. And maybe more important than anything, he walks around now with a renewed confidence in his abilities.
"What happened last year on the mound forced me to put things in perspective, forced me to grow up a little bit," Morton said. "Any opportunity I get, I want to make the best of it. I honestly can say that I did everything I could last year, but what I was doing just didn't work. It could have gone for the better or for the worst, but right now I feel really good about where I'm at."
Walker has four-hit night
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Maybe all it took for Neil Walker to have a big night at the plate was giving him the opportunity to hit out of the cleanup spot. The second baseman wasn't ready to make that strong of a statement, but he did thrive in the No. 4 hole in the Pirates' loss to the Orioles on Thursday.
Walker played all nine innings of the game and finished with four hits in as many at-bats. That included a pair of solo homers off Orioles starter Jake Arrieta. The second baseman capped his night with a pair of singles.
"He's seeing the ball better," manager Clint Hurdle said. "What you saw tonight was that the guy got pitches to hit and when he got pitches to hit, he hit it hard where it was pitched."
Walker entered the game with a pedestrian .212 average this spring. The switch hitter has the unenviable task of trying to get sharp from two sides of the plate, though he said he is starting to feel better from the right side, in particular, lately. Walker typically does not get as much work hitting right-handed as he does left-handed.
With Thursday's two home runs, Walker now has a team-leading four this season. Five of his last eight hits have been for extra bases.
"I think [results] are more important at the end - not so much the outcome of your at-bats, but the approach and the hard contact," Walker said. "I think that's the most important thing coming down the stretch. I was late early on and I really wanted to focus these last 10 games on my approach, on what I'm successful at - hitting the ball the other way and adjusting to off-speed stuff."
Overbay posting big spring numbers
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Often praised solely for his defensive ability, first baseman Lyle Overbay has quietly put up a strong offensive showing since the start of spring games.
With a two-run homer in Thursday's 11-7 loss to the Orioles, Overbay still shares the team lead in spring hits with Andrew McCutchen. Both have 18, though Overbay has his in seven fewer at-bats.
Overbay spoke early in camp about being more aggressive in his approach this season. That, he hoped, would boost his average and cut down on the strikeouts one year after batting just .243 and striking out 131 times.
By being freer with his swing early, Overbay found that it took less time than usual to get his fastball timing down. It's taken a little longer to get comfortable hitting off-speed pitches, though he is seeing those much better now, too.
"I don't think I've ever felt this good," Overbay said. "I remember in '06, the last week I was really feeling good and that helped. The balls are finding holes right now, so that's part of it, too. I have been taking advantage of the pitches, but hopefully it will kind of progress right on to the season in terms of being ready from pitch one. I don't think I've done that in the past."
Any comparison to 2006 is a good one for Overbay. He hit .302 in 157 games with the Blue Jays that season and established career bests in home runs (22) and RBIs (92). He also struck out only 92 times.
"He's had a good eye," said manager Clint Hurdle, who will likely slot Overbay into the fifth or sixth spot in the order. "Last season, we talked about the reason for some of the numbers. I think last season was more of an aberration. This man is determined this spring. He has made a conscious effort of getting out of the blocks clean. The confidence should have been built up. I think he's found an approach that is going to work."
Bullpen picture still fuzzy
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Technically, the Pirates still have five bullpen spots up for grabs with only a week remaining before Opening Day rosters must be set. At least, that is what the team continues to say publicly.
Clint Hurdle confirmed on Thursday that there are some other relievers who are "definitively in," but the Pittsburgh manager would not go any further and list names. That would come, he said, after he has told the individuals that they are on the roster.
Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek already have their roles solidified. Hanrahan will close, and Meek will serve as the primary set-up man. That is all that is officially known.
Right-handers Chris Resop, Jose Veras and Jeff Karstens are also believed to be locks to go to Chicago. Resop would be another late-inning option for Hurdle, while Karstens would be available to pitch in long relief. Veras would have to be added to the Pirates' 40-man roster.
Including these five pitchers in the bullpen would leave two openings. Joe Beimel is expected to take one of them, though he might not be ready to begin the season with the team after being slowed by arm injuries. If the Pirates want to take another lefty, the club could carry Garrett Olson or Brian Burres, who could also be called upon to start the season in the rotation if James McDonald is not ready.
If the Pirates do not keep two left-handers in the bullpen, there are five other right-handed relievers - Mike Crotta, Sean Gallagher, Chris Leroux, Daniel McCutchen and Tyler Yates - who remain in camp. All but Gallagher and Yates are already on the 40-man roster.
SARASOTA, Fla. --Left-hander Joe Beimel returned to the mound on Thursday and threw a bullpen session without any issue. This marked the first time Beimel had thrown off the mound since tightness in his left elbow forced him to miss a scheduled appearance on Saturday. ... Right-hander Jose Ascanio is scheduled to pitch in a game over at Pirate City on Friday. Ascanio continues to work his way back from right elbow discomfort. ... Stetson Allie, the Pirates' second-round pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, pitched two innings against his fellow Pirates Minor League players on Thursday. Allie allowed three earned runs on two hits and three walks. ... Catcher Chris Snyder caught five innings in Thursday's game against Baltimore, and said afterward that he had no issues with his back. This marked the first time Snyder had played in a Grapefruit League game since March 9. He finished 0-for-3.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.