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04/01/12 12:50 PM ET

Burnett has encouraging Minor League outing

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pirates fans will not get an Opening Day look at A.J. Burnett, who declined the opportunity to travel to Pittsburgh and join the April 5 festivities at PNC Park.

But if Burnett's performance Sunday in his first competitive outing of the spring is an indication, fans will see him soon enough -- and for real, not just for a bow.

Burnett's first real-game appearance, pitching for Double-A Altoona against the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians, became an ideal 54-pitch outing.

Burnett threw 36 strikes while allowing one hit in "four" innings.

He was scheduled to go only three, but got through that so efficiently, in his final inning he stayed on the mound for the rare six-up, six-down inning.

"I would hope he won't have any six-out innings during the season. That would mean there were three errors behind him," said a smiling GM Neal Huntington.

As important, considering Burnett's main curiosity about his first competitive outing was how he would react to plays, he got to handle one comebacker and to run to cover first on a grounder to the first baseman. He handled both plays perfectly, showing no delays in reacting to his first plays since being waylaid by a fractured eye-orbital bone that required surgery on March 2.

"The ball was coming out of his hand real well," said pitching coach Ray Searage, who monitored Burnett's outing before rejoining the Pirates in Dunedin for their final Florida exhibition. "We got to extend him a bit in that last inning, so a very good outing."

After needing 17 pitches to get through the first, and only 14 more in the second, Burnett was held over in the third for 23 pitches. He had one three-ball count.

Burnett will next throw a side session on Tuesday at Pirate City, then make a rehab start with Bradenton on April 6 at McKechnie Field, after which his comeback timetable will be re-evaluated.

Karstens feels good after last spring start

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Jeff Karstens tuned up for the regular season with a tidy 51-pitch outing against the Blue Jays on Sunday, in which the right-hander allowed one run on four hits over four innings.

"I'm just in a really good place on the mound right now," said Karstens, who tossed 35 strikes. "In the middle of Spring Training, I think I was walking some guys, coming out of my delivery, worrying about things I shouldn't have been worrying about. We got the focus back and after today, I'm in a place where I'm really happy about going into the season."

In a spring appearance when pitchers typically dial it down before camp breaks, Karstens worked through the first three innings unscathed before surrendering a run in the fourth, when Kelly Johnson hit a leadoff double and Edwin Encarnacion singled him home two batters later.

"Today was a nice, easy day and come get work in and get to where you need to be for the season," said Karstens, who had one strikeout and one walk. "I'm happy and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can be now."

Karstens, who ended the Grapefruit League with a 2.12 ERA, will be the starting pitcher in the Pirates' second regular-season game on April 7 against the Phillies.

"We're in a good place now," Karstens said. "Our win-loss record in Spring Training isn't what we wanted, but at the same time, we had a lot of tough decisions to make on [the roster] so guys weren't playing full games. I think once the season kicks off on Thursday, there's going to be some excitement in Pittsburgh."

Hague continues hot spring hitting

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Matt Hague continues to make a case for breaking camp with the Pirates. The 26-year-old first-base prospect smacked his seventh homer of the spring on Sunday and now has 15 hits in his last 37 at-bats, including six home runs.

"He's not trying to hit home runs but I think he's got to a point in his maturation process where now when balls are elevated, he's just finishing his swing better," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "I think there's a time with young hitters, it's all about contact and getting hits and I think he understood going into winter ball, just drive it a little bit. It's more than just a single, more than just barrel and contact. He's just putting really good swings on the ball now that are elevated. His swing is in a real nice place. Not only can he hit the homer, he's giving us good at-bats, some lengthy at-bats. Some balls he hit the other way. He's basically hit the ball from right field to left field."

Entering camp this spring, the big question mark surrounding Hague was his ability to hit for power. While showing some extra-base ability in the Minor Leagues since being drafted by the Pirates in the ninth round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft -- 27 homers the past two years and 30 or more doubles for the past three years running -- Hague still had not convinced the Pirates brass he had the consistent skill set to do so for a corner infielder.

"I'm not oblivious to the situation, and I know for a corner guy there's a high demand on power," said Hague, who has a .385 batting average in 52 at-bats this spring. "It's a mindset, get a pitch and let my hands work with the contact point, short to it and long through it, throw the barrel to it and let it go all the way through."

Hague has concentrated on this approach throughout March and he's ramped it up over the past two weeks.

"It's all about taking a shot and driving the ball more often and not selling myself short," said Hague who has nine RBIs in his last 10 games. "I've just been constantly telling myself to look for a ball to drive."

Karstens, McKenry narrowly avoid injury

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- There was one hiccup and a couple scary moments for the Pirates during their contest against the Blue Jays.

In the first inning, Michael McKenry had the misfortune of receiving a pitch from Pittsburgh starter Jeff Karstens just a bit short of the target. The ball skipped off the plate and hit McKenry underneath the protective cup.

McKenry went to the ground for a moment in obvious agony before gingerly limping to the pitcher's mound where he was greeted by the entire infield position players, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and trainer Todd Tomczyk. After taking a few requisite breaths, McKenry tapped Hurdle on the shoulder and nodded to tell his skipper he was fine to continue playing.

"I was like 'Um, are you and your wife trying to have kids any time soon?'" Karstens said.

Karstens then received a scare of his own in the next inning when after allowing a single to Brett Lawrie, the Blue Jays' Eric Thames hit a line drive right back to Karstens. The Pirates' right-hander quickly put his glove up, knocking it off his left hand. After ricocheting over to Neil Walker, the second-baseman gathered the ball, tagged out Lawrie and flipped the ball over to Garrett Jones for an inning-ending double-play.

"All the training guys asked if it hit me and I was like, 'No, I'm just amazed that it took my glove off,'" Karstens said. "I just tried to have fun at it. I think we were playing on pavement today."

Pirates reliever Daniel Moskos also experienced a comebacker in the fifth inning when Yunel Escobar ripped a shot back to the left-hander. Moskos stabbed at it with his glove and then retrieved it from the ground before firing it to Jones for the out.

Pirates option pitcher McCutchen to Minors

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Rookie Brad Lincoln and veteran Daniel McCutchen -- two pitchers who began Spring Training with hopes and tenure, respectively, and ended it with dreary stats -- will try to regain their standing in Indianapolis.

The Pirates on Sunday optioned both right-handers to Triple-A. The moves narrowed the focus for the battle for one spot in the bullpen (or two, in the unlikely event Clint Hurdle opens the season with eight relievers) on Jared Hughes, Chris Leroux and lefty Daniel Moskos.

The completed rotation made a longshot relief candidate out of Lincoln, who allowed 10 earned runs in eight innings (11.25 ERA). He'll be in the Indians' rotation. McCutchen -- who in nine relief appearances totaling 11 innings gave up 20 hits and 14 runs -- will take a more versatile role, stretching out in long relief assignments and occasional spot starts.

McCutchen conceded not having pitched well enough this spring to be chosen over others who have been much sharper, but was a little disappointed that his 2011 performance gave him so little cache. In his first season as a full-time reliever, McCutchen worked 84 2/3 innings in 73 appearances, posting an ERA of 3.72

"I didn't spend a month or two in the big leagues," McCutchen said as he checked back into the Minor League camp at Pirate City. "They know what I can do. Ask any player, and they'll tell you they don't care about Spring Training numbers. But I understand management is looking for the best guys to take.

"I haven't pitched very well. I feel good about my stuff, but it's as simple as the season starting, and a lot of guys came in camp sharp, a lot sharper than me."

McCutchen's goal is to become more efficient against left-handed hitters by working on getting his four-seam fastball in on their hands, which would make his two-seamer and change more effective.

"I'll go to Indy, and do what I need to do to get the call," McCutchen said, "then get back up there and prove I'm a big league pitcher, make people say, 'Why didn't they take this guy out of Spring Training?'"

Worth noting

• Jose Tabata went 2-for-3 on Sunday and has 14 hits in his last 37 at-bats. The Pirates' outfielder has a .306 batting average this spring.

• Nate McLouth went 2-for-2 and hit his second home run of the spring on Sunday. McLouth has reached base safely in 12 of his last 13 games and has a .378 spring batting average.

• Daniel Moskos worked a scoreless inning in relief with two strikeouts. The left-hander has nine strikeouts in nine spring innings.

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