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04/04/11 7:30 PM ET

Hurdle thinks Tabata can thrive in leadoff role

ST. LOUIS -- The idea of moving left fielder Jose Tabata to the leadoff spot was something that came to Pirates manager Clint Hurdle when he was watching tape and talking to scouts this winter.

"One of the comments I kept hearing was from people in our organization and other organizations that you didn't see from many young kids is the ability to hunt a breaking ball," Hurdle said on Monday before the start of the three-game series with the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. "Not that that makes you a good leadoff hitter, but it just shows discipline. It shows a kid that stays back and reads pitches and takes long looks. He's not just interested in going up there and firing early. There's times when you'll see him ambush -- he did it a couple times in Spring Training. First pitch of the game, he will ambush. But I thought the discipline was in a place that we could experiment with it in spring, see what kind of reaction, what kind of results we got from it."

In 102 games last season, which included 36 as the leadoff hitter, Tabata batted .299 with 21 doubles, four triples, four home runs, 35 RBIs, 61 runs scored, 19 stolen bases and a .346 on-base percentage.

In his first three games this season, the 22-year-old had five hits in 11 at-bats with two walks, a stolen base and five runs scored.

Moving Tabata to the top of the lineup also means that center fielder Andrew McCutchen slides down in the order, which is another factor of the move that Hurdle likes.

"I do like having Andrew's bat down in the lineup in the third position," the manager said. "We'll see how it continues to play out. Right now, our top three hitters in the lineup have been very good for us. And I believe the other guys will catch on also."

Hurdle understands the lineup switch has been met with some criticism.

"It was just something I looked at over the winter to try to find a way to score more runs," he said. "That's all. It's not doing anything that's crazy. So many people, as soon as I talked about it, 'Why would you move McCutchen?' We were last in runs scored. I mean, why not? What have we got to lose? I understand that he can be a very good leadoff hitter. In less than two years, he showed that. He might be a very good third-hole hitter."

McCutchen returns from bout with stiff neck

ST. LOUIS -- Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen returned to the lineup for the series opener with the Cardinals on Monday night at Busch Stadium after being scratched a day earlier with stiffness in his neck.

"I feel good enough to play," McCutchen said Monday before the Pirates took batting practice. "That's about it."

The 24-year-old outfielder said on Sunday that the soreness came from "diving on the cement out there" in center field during the 5-3 loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Saturday.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle put McCutchen back in the lineup, in the No. 3 spot, against Cardinals right-hander Kyle Lohse on Monday.

"He's feeling better," Hurdle said shortly after the clubhouse opened to the media. "He was out moving around. He hasn't been out on the field yet but went and swung the bat. Yesterday after he swung the bat he was a little tentative around the bases. With the cold weather, which we still have more of today, I think we'll get a real accurate picture of him once he goes out and works out pregame. But he seems to feel much better or at least improved today."

McCutchen said he felt ready to play after taking some cuts in the cage.

"I went out and got some swings in the cage to see how I felt," he said. "I got some swings yesterday and felt like there were some things hindering me from being able to hit as well as I wanted to hit. So that's why I gave it a day. I went out today and I hit and I felt fine."

McCutchen had a home run, a double and two RBIs in the 6-3 season-opening win over the Cubs on Friday but went hitless in three at-bats on Saturday. He batted .286 in 2010 with 35 doubles, 16 home runs, 56 RBIs, 94 runs scored, 33 stolen bases and a .365 on-base percentage.

Nate Latsch is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.