BRADENTON, Fla. -- Did Pirates manager Clint Hurdle sneak his Opening Day lineup -- minus one temporarily sidelined starter -- on the McKechnie Field diamond for Wednesday's exhibition against Toronto?If he did, it was certainly accidental and circumstantial. The 8-6 loss to the Blue Jays was merely the Bucs' fifth game of 31 preseason contests. So many camp decisions still have to be made, with plenty of time to make them. Nevertheless, the lineup that jumped Kyle Drabek for an early 4-0 lead could be what PNC Park fans see on April 5: Alex Presley, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata in the outfield; third baseman Pedro Alvarez, shortstop Clint Barmes and first baseman Garrett Jones -- a likely Opening Day choice with right-hander Roy Halladay starting for the Phillies.
The only variable could be at second, where Neil Walker rested a tight lower back and was replaced by Josh Harrison (who went 2-for-2), and the battery.Jeff Karstens, who threw shutout ball in becoming the first Pittsburgh pitcher to go three innings, is under consideration for the assignment. A strong spring following up his strong second half would make him a deserving candidate. And if Karstens is pitching, Michael McKenry will be catching him. Karstens' solid pitching down the stretch coincided with the mid-June arrival of McKenry in a trade with Boston. In the 10 starts caught by McKenry, Karstens had an ERA of 2.63. "He really buys into the idea a pitcher has for his game plan," Karstens said. "And he really cares. He has a deep passion for the game. He cares about each and every guy who goes out there, and that's beneficial for the entire pitching staff."
Sinker accompanies Morton in intrasquad
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Charlie Morton showed off a sharp sinker in his 1 2/3-innings outing during a Wednesday morning intrasquad game at Pirate City.Working against a team of Minor Leaguers -- with the exception of Casey McGehee, who stood in as the DH for both sides -- Morton allowed one run on an RBI double by Quincy Latimore. He walked one and struck out one while throwing 29 pitches, 18 of them strikes. Morton's debut game appearance attracted manager Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage, who both commuted from McKechnie Field in time for the first pitch. When Morton retired McGehee on a first-inning popup, that was a first. While with the Brewers, McGehee was 2-for-2 with a walk in three lifetime plate appearances against the right-hander. His next time up, McGehee resumed that trend: Sharp single up the middle, then he scored on the Latimore double. Latimore's two-bagger pushed Morton to his pitch limit, and he was removed. He is scheduled for one more bullpen session prior to making his Grapefruit League debut. Kyle McPherson may not have been the featured hurler in that intrasquad game, but the young righty impressively struck out the side in the bottom of the first.
Walker taking it easy with back tightness
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Neil Walker implied he had tried doing too much too quickly, so for a few days he won't do anything at all.The Pirates' second baseman was an early scratch from Wednesday's lineup against the Blue Jays with what the club's announcement termed "low back tightness." Josh Harrison took his place. Walker is not expected to play for two, three days, then be re-evaluated. He appeared in two of Pittsburgh's first four exhibitions, with one hit in five at-bats. The Pittsburgh Kid needed occasional timeouts with tightness in the lower-back area last season, when he led the club with 159 games played.
Pedro Alvarez made his first hit of the spring extra noteworthy by lining a Kyle Drabek pitch over McKechnie Field's left-field wall. Not trying to pull pitches on the outer half of the plate is regarded as one of the keys to Alvarez's consistency. Alvarez later added a single. The Bucs have the two hottest hitters in the Grapefruit League. Yamaico Navarro did not play on Wednesday but returns to action Thursday in Clearwater against the Phillies with five hits in his last six at-bats. Think that's hot? Starling Marte homered and singled against the Blue Jays, giving him hits in seven straight at-bats. Marte is 8-for-11 overall, a .727 average. Josh Harrison, the late replacement for Neil Walker at second, has reached base six times in seven plate appearances.
Jeff Karstens, the first pitcher to take his place in the lineup, indeed came up in a bunting situation in the second and laid down a beauty for the sacrifice. "I was just happy to get it down. Keep Clint [manager Clint Hurdle] happy. Makes my day a little easier," Karstens said.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.