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03/17/10 6:14 PM ET

Consistency eludes Hart in third start

Bucs keep open mind as fifth-starter candidate struggles

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Kevin Hart could be running out of time.

With less than three weeks remaining until Opening Day, Hart has shown little to no progress in finding consistency with his mechanics. And for someone said to be in a two-pitcher race for the last open spot in the rotation, Hart is not helping his chances.

As much as Hart had struggled in his first two Grapefruit League starts, Wednesday marked the low point of his spring. He allowed just one run, but Hart walked six of the 12 hitters he faced and hit another in a start that was shortened to 1 2/3 innings because of a rapidly escalating pitch count.

By the time pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, who had already made two visits to the mound, came out to remove Hart in the second, Hart's pitch count sat at 53. And of those 53 pitches, only 19 were strikes.

"I'm beating myself," said Hart, who went to a three-ball count nine times. "I'd like to start seeing some results on the field. I don't have time to battle this whole spring. Some of the pitches I make out there are good pitches. It's just repeating it over and over and over again. I'm not doing that. I'm missing left and then missing right."

Hart has now walked 13 hitters in 4 2/3 spring innings. All three of his starts have ended before the right-hander has been able to finish his scheduled number of innings. The Pirates had hoped Hart could get through three innings in this start. Instead, he never made it out of the second.

"He's working on it," manager John Russell said. "He's made a lot of progress. He just hasn't been able to take it out to the game yet. You see signs of it, and then he reverts back. We'll have to just keep working and see where we go. He realizes the position he's in, and at some point he's got to be able to equate it into a game."

Management talked all winter about there being a spring battle between Hart and Daniel McCutchen for the final spot in the rotation. Although the Pirates didn't announce it publicly, all signs pointed toward Hart being the favorite.

Hart's disastrous results and consistent wildness might not leave the Pirates any choice but to go in another direction to start the season. One option, of course, would be to tab McCutchen as the team's fifth starter.

As Hart has struggled, McCutchen has performed well. In two Grapefruit League appearances, McCutchen has allowed one run on three hits. He hasn't walked a batter and has struck out three. Although the results don't count in his official stats, McCutchen also pitched four scoreless innings in an intrasquad game Monday.

Hart has one option remaining, so the Pirates have the flexibility to start him in Triple-A. That would allow Hart to continue working on his delivery, and, in turn, restore his own confidence without the pressure of having to do so at the big league level.

Asked whether McCutchen has slipped ahead of Hart in the rotation battle, Russell worked his way around without giving a direct answer.

"I'm not going to say that," Russell said. "We're still in the evaluation process. We really like what Kevin can bring, but at some point he's got to be able to get it done. Kevin knows the situation he's in. He'll keep fighting through it.

"We have all of Spring Training to make the evaluation," he added. "We're not going to make a call early. We'll just keep giving him an opportunity."

The other rotation possibility -- and one that Russell hinted at after Wednesday's loss -- could be to use the team's three off-days in early to mid-April as a way to skip the fifth spot in the rotation twice. If the Pirates put Hart on the Opening Day roster and decide to go that route, the righty would have to pitch just once during the first two and a half weeks of the season. That would, of course, allow him additional time to work with Kerrigan before having to perform.

Hart maintained that all this speculation about where he might start the season is of minimal concern at this point.

"I'll let them worry about that right now," Hart said. "Right now I'm just trying to worry about myself and getting into sync, getting into rhythm. It's funny because I think I really can succeed if I can figure this stuff out.

"I came in this spring feeling good. I still feel good. That's the frustrating thing."

It's especially frustrating because even though consistent mechanics are eluding him in his starts, Hart said he feels that those same mechanics are clicking in his side sessions. Kerrigan continues to preach repetition of the delivery motion that Hart adopted late last season, and Hart said he can execute it when the results don't matter.

That seems to suggest that his troubles are as much a byproduct of a wavering confidence as they are physical issues. Believing in his abilities and trusting in his delivery have not been easy for Hart.

"The problem is that in the bullpen when I'm smooth and staying behind the ball like I'm working on, it's fine," Hart said. "Then I get out there in the game and it speeds up -- I don't make the adjustment to slow it down.

That's not to say, though, that Hart doubts the long-term benefit of the changes he made after joining the Pirates last July. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Hart said he believes that the changes are in his long-term interest, if he figures out how to execute consistently.

"Me and Joe agreed on this a long time ago," Hart said. "And I see it. The stuff is better. My fastball is down when it is down. I have better life. The frustrating part is the misfires in between. And there are a lot of them right now.

"I know that eventually these bullpens will carry over into a game. I'm just waiting for it to happen."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.