PITTSBURGH -- Enforcing his promise that all players will be treated equally, manager Clint Hurdle made that point loud and clear by benching Andrew McCutchen on Thursday, one day after McCutchen did not run a ball out.
The incident happened in the eighth, with the Pirates down, 2-0, to the Dodgers. McCutchen swung through strike three from reliever Matt Guerrier and did not run to first when the ball squirted away from catcher Rod Barajas.
"I know that's not the type of person I am," McCutchen said on Thursday. "I let my emotions get the best of me. I took it out on my bat and myself when I shouldn't have been mad. I was just frustrated at the time and not focused on the game, not focused that the ball was in the dirt with two strikes and I needed to run to first."
McCutchen finished Wednesday's game, but Hurdle had a one-on-one discussion with the center fielder on Thursday to let him know the lack of hustle was unacceptable. Hurdle left McCutchen out of the starting lineup, though Hurdle did say that the outfielder is available off the bench.
"I know our players clearly understand what is important to me, and as we create an identity in who we are and what we are, there are certain things that need to be done," Hurdle said. "You can't look past it. You can't stick your head in the sand. We're a team -- whether it's Ronny Cedeno or Andrew McCutchen."
Cedeno was in a similar situation last month. The shortstop was benched on April 27 after not running out a grounder he believed was foul. Cedeno did not return to the starting lineup for two days, though McCutchen is expected to be back in center field on Friday.
"I learned something very valuable in Colorado from [former Rockies president] Keli McGregor -- when it becomes only about winning, people never last," Hurdle said. "We are focused on winning, but we are focused on building something greater and better as we go forward. I think there are certain things that are non-negotiable along those lines. Sometimes they just need help with their direction."
"The main thing you learn is that the game of baseball needs to be played the right way," McCutchen said. "It was brought to my attention. That's not the way I play ball, I know that. It's a lesson learned. I'll learn from that."
Walker returns as Bucs sort backup options
PITTSBURGH -- Despite still battling some flulike symptoms, Neil Walker returned to the Pirates' lineup for Thursday's series finale against Los Angeles. That hasn't, however, stopped the club from continuing to gauge its backup options at the position.
As Ronny Cedeno showed, he is plenty capable of filling in for Walker, if needed. Though he hadn't made a start at second since June 2009, Cedeno had no obvious defensive issues there in Wednesday's start.
It worked out well that both Cedeno and Brandon Wood had been getting work at second for the past week as the Pirates determined who their best backup option would be. For now, Cedeno sits ahead of Wood on the depth chart.
Steve Pearce has also been taking grounders at second for the past two days. The Pirates have no plans to start Pearce at the position, but the work will continue to ensure that Pearce could step in as an emergency option.
"We're working on the footwork in case he gets thrown into that situation," Hurdle said. "We've got all kinds of Plans Bs and Cs that we've already had to put in place."
Before missing Wednesday's game, Walker was the only Pirates player to start every game this season. He watched the game from home, too, as Hurdle sent him out of the ballpark before first pitch.
"I think I caught a little bit of something [on the road trip] and brought it back to western Pennsylvania with me," Walker said. "I'm trying to kick it. I certainly don't want to sit out, but I've got to be smart at the same time."
Alvarez shows encouraging signs at plate
PITTSBURGH -- There are no predictions flowing from inside the Pirates' clubhouse. But maybe, just maybe, the swings Pedro Alvarez put on a few balls in Wednesday's 2-0 loss were a sign that the third baseman is headed toward more successful days at the plate.
Alvarez finished 1-for-4 with a double in the right-center-field gap with two outs in the ninth. Earlier in the night, Alvarez hitting a towering line drive that landed just foul in the right-field seats. He eventually lined out in that seventh-inning at-bat, but again, his swing looked in sync.
Any positive is something for Alvarez, who has not had a string of good offensive performances all year. He's hitting .204, though Alvarez did use the recent time off while he rest his ailing right quadriceps to get some extra work with his swing.
With Andrew McCutchen out of the lineup on Thursday, manager Clint Hurdle bumped Alvarez up to the fifth spot in the order. That's where Alvarez started the season, though he has batted sixth in six starts and seventh in another 11 games.
"It's just him finding his rhythm and his comfort zone, as well," Hurdle said. "He's well aware of what he needs to do. Last night he was able to put a foot down and, I think, make some pretty good passes at some balls and barrel some up. He looked much better. We'll see where it goes."
Offseason talk with Hurdle benefits Maholm
PITTSBURGH -- Perhaps, at the end of the season, Paul Maholm will point to one offseason conversation as a pivotal turning point in a rebound season.
Maholm's season can be characterized as such through eight starts, despite the won-loss record. He has another four and a half months to sustain what he's done early this season, but it's evident that the discussion he had with manager Clint Hurdle over the winter is paying early dividends.
Shortly after Hurdle was named the team's next manager, Maholm asked him to share the scouting report Hurdle gave his hitters before Maholm faced the Rangers last summer. Hurdle, who served as Texas' hitting coach in 2010, was frank.
He informed Maholm that he told his hitters to sit on the outer part of the plate and expect Maholm to pitch away. There was no need, Hurdle said, to worry about the left-hander coming inside with his pitches. With that knowledge, Maholm made it one of his biggest spring goals to alter that report.
"That just went to me pitching inside more," Maholm said. "I'm not just throwing one inside to go back away. This is the first time I've had a coach come in who was a hitting coach on another team. It's a good perspective to get."
Throwing inside more has paid off for Maholm so far. It's been an especially effective tool against right-handed hitters, and Maholm has shown a willingness to go inside with different pitches and in different counts.
"At this date and time, he has changed some reports," Hurdle said. "You've got to look at Paul a different way when you go to prepare for him offensively than you did the last few seasons."
Kevin Hart threw 25 pitches during a live batting practice session on Thursday. All went well for Hart, who hadn't faced a hitter since pitching for Triple-A Indianapolis on April 28, 2010. Hart underwent right shoulder surgery a week later.
Right-hander Mike Crotta (right elbow posterior inflammation) left Pittsburgh and flew to Bradenton, Fla., where he will remain during the rehab process. Crotta, who was placed on the disabled list on Wednesday, is eligible to come off any time after May 25.
The Pirates entered Thursday's game 16-0 in games in which they led after eight innings. Joel Hanrahan has played a significant role in that record, as he has nailed down 11 saves in 11 opportunities in his first full season as the team's closer. Only three National League closers -- Colorado's Huston Street, San Francisco's Brian Wilson and Florida's Leo Nunez -- have recorded more.
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.