03/28/08 10:00 AM ET
Bucs' new regime gets first test
Russell set to make managerial debut vs. Braves
By Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com
When the team takes the field at Turner Field on Monday, it will look almost identical to the club that walked off the PNC Park field at the close of last season.
As the Pirates prepare to begin the season -- starting with Monday's opener at 7:10 p.m. ET in Atlanta -- they do so with the same familiar faces.
Ronny Paulino will again be behind the plate, and Jason Bay and Xavier Nady will again take their spots in their respective corners of the outfield. And once Freddy Sanchez is healthy enough to return to the field every day, from right to left, the Pirates' infield will be identical to what it was last year.
The rotation will feature four of the same five pitchers who were on the starting staff at the beginning of the '07 season, with Matt Morris being the only change. Toby Keith's "Big Bull Rider" will again be the harbinger for Matt Capps to come out of the bullpen and close out the game. Damaso Marte and John Grabow will yet again be the go-to lefties in the relief corps.
But while the team is essentially the same, Monday's season opener will be the first time John Russell takes a seat in a Major League dugout as a manager. Russell, who was hired in early November, will be flanked by a new coaching staff and will begin his quest to convince the pessimists out there that he is the right man for the job.
He has the job of taking a club that has won no more than 68 games in each of the past three seasons and mold it into a competitive unit, one ready to compete in a National League Central division that still is expected to have some parity.
Heading into the season, numerous players have lauded the work Russell has done so far to prepare the team for a 162-game season. He has spent the last six weeks instilling a rejuvenated approach and a more disciplined work ethic. He's stressed accountability and effort.
"There couldn't be a better man for the job, for what he stresses," Doug Mientkiewicz said. "Where this organization needs to go, he's perfect. The only thing he stresses is hard work and grind, and that's kind of what the city of Pittsburgh expects. It's a tough-minded city with hard-working, blue-collar guys, and I think those are the kind of players that John wants."
Russell, in turn, was pleased with where his club stood as Spring Training was winding down.
The concerns about having too many holes in the bullpen have been lessened considerably after a number of pitchers came into camp and took hold of those roles. The center field battle seems to have pushed Nate McLouth to another level. And if the production the Pirates received from backup players over the course of the last month continues, the team should have an improved bench.
And other than Sanchez's ailing shoulder, the Pirates will break camp without any serious injury concerns.
All of this has Russell excited about this group's role in trying to turn around a franchise mired in mediocrity.
"I don't see anything that we have where I'm saying, 'If we can't fix that, we're in trouble,'" Russell said. "Things are clicking pretty good for us. I'm seeing some things that I've wanted to see since day one, and I'll continue to convey that we need to work hard to continue that.
"It looks like it's going to be pretty exciting when we leave [camp]," he added. "Guys are starting to get very excited for the season. I'm looking forward to it."
Now he, nor anyone else, has to wait any longer.
PIT: RHP Ian Snell (9-12, 3.76 ERA in 2007)
As Snell begins his third straight season in Pittsburgh, the right-hander prepares to make the first Opening Day start of his career. Snell led the Pirates' staff in ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts last season, and he will look to repeat the quick start he had last season, when he allowed just six runs in five April starts.
ATL: Tom Glavine (13-8, 4.45 ERA in 2007)
Glavine, who spent the first 16 seasons of his career with the Braves, will make his first start for the Atlanta club since signing with the team as a free agent over the winter. The 42-year-old left-hander spent the past five seasons pitching for the Mets before taking a hometown discount to return to Atlanta for what could be his final Major League season.
Monday's season opener against the Braves will mark just the second time the Pirates have opened the season against Atlanta. Pittsburgh opened the 1966 season in Atlanta, and won the game, 3-2, in 13 innings. ... The Pirates are 64-57 in Opening Day games. However, they have won just three of their last nine.
Tuesday: Off day
Wednesday: Pirates (Tom Gorzelanny, 14-10, 3.88) at Braves (Jair Jurrjens, 3-1, 4.70), 7:10 p.m. ET
Thursday: Pirates (Paul Maholm, 10-15, 5.02) at Braves (Mike Hampton, 0-0, 0.00), 7:10 p.m. ET
Friday: Pirates (Matt Morris, 10-11, 4.89) at Marlins (Scott Olsen, 10-15, 5.81), 7:10 p.m. ET
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.