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03/16/2013 5:55 PM ET

Cole competes without best stuff

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In Gerrit Cole's previous start, he was good, allowing the Orioles only three baserunners in four innings.

On Saturday, Cole spent his four innings surrounded by baserunners.

"You saw a young man go out there to compete. He loves to compete, and he had opportunities to compete," manager Clint Hurdle said after Cole limited five Twins hits and two errors to one run in Saturday's 2-1 loss.

"I didn't have a lot of stuff out there today," said Cole, ranked by MLB.com as the Pirates' No. 1 prospect. "I had to go out there and compete. That's part of the game, to still put your team in the best spot. I had to pitch a lot more today, without that good stuff."

That merely enabled him to add to his good impressions, calling cards for his Major League baptismal -- eventually. Cole is likely to soon be rerouted to Minor League camp, but when he departs, it will be a classic case of "see you later" and not "goodbye." Each outing just whets the appetite.

It took Russell Martin only one in-game look to recognize, and appreciate, the 22-year-old who eliminates batters in Cole blood.

"He's really good," said Martin, who had caught Cole's prior start. "I've caught some really good ones, and I've been impressed -- with his stuff, his demeanor, his makeup on the mound. Stuff-wise, he has an electric arm and he knows how to use it.

"He's freakin' good. If he's not the best, he's right up there. He can really pitch. There'll be a learning curve there, learning how to deal with adversity, but I would not be surprised if that kid is one of the best in the game -- soon."

Worth noting

• The Pirates will go with their likely Opening Day lineup for Sunday's sold-out game at McKechnie Field against the Yankees -- except for having Phil Irwin start and Gaby Sanchez serve as DH.

• Tony Watson will make his return appearance on Sunday, scheduled for an outing in a Minor League game. The lefty has been working on some mechanical issues in side sessions since his last game appearance on Feb. 28.

• Brandon Inge was hitless in three at-bats Saturday to extend his slump to 0-for-15 and was challenged to handle a couple throws that went as errors for shortstop Clint Barmes. Inge has never played first base, and made a terrific diving stop of a fourth-inning smash by Ray Olmedo. In Hurdle's view, he is still searching for his timing at the plate.

"He has good hands, just needs some reps," Hurdle said. "[At bat], it's all about rhythm, timing and balance -- that's what he's working on. He's seeing the ball good."

Grilli would have liked more innings with Italy

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Jason Grilli can be credited with one of the two victories that made Italy's World Baseball Classic appearance historic. But he can't be blamed for the two wrenching defeats that sent the Italians home.

Grilli, who returned to the Pirates' camp on Saturday morning, had an adventurous save in the 6-5 opening win over Mexico that began Italy's advancement into the second round. But he never left the bullpen as Italy blew late leads against both the Dominican and Puerto Rico in Pool B play.

"Yeah, I was disappointed," Grilli said. "I thought I would've pitched in one of those two. I told [manager Marco Mazzieri] it did not have to be a save situation for him to use me. I thought I would've pitched in the eighth inning against Puerto Rico, with the heart of the order coming up -- [Carlos] Beltran and [Yadier] Molina, those are guys I've faced often and am very familiar with.

"But short of me picking up the phone and calling to say, 'Hey, I know these guys … .' [Mazzieri] apologized for not using me. I respect their decision. I'm still grateful for the experience. I couldn't have been happier doing it for the third time [Grilli was also on Italy's staff for the 2006 and '09 Classics]."

That save against Mexico came on March 7, and in the interim Grilli has only thrown on the side.

"So, I'd like to get reacquainted with facing some hitters," he said. "[The Classic] was a playoff atmosphere, but I don't look at [resuming Spring Training] as a letdown. I missed these guys. I guess I was saving my bullets for the bigger picture, closing games for the Pirates."

Wilson, Johnson renew bullpen battle

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Left-handers Justin Wilson and Kris Johnson renewed their battle for a bullpen spot in Saturday's 2-1 loss to the Twins.

Johnson took the defeat, walking two men in the eighth ahead of Brandon Boggs' tiebreaking single.

As for Wilson -- he looked too long-winded with too many weapons for relief work. The 25-year-old Triple-A veteran might have stuck his toe into the rotation competition through the back door with three shutout innings, allowing two hits and five strikeouts.

"We're looking for that guy who can pitch multiple innings, and he's a guy with a history of having length," said manager Clint Hurdle.

It was Wilson's fifth straight scoreless outing, and in nine innings across those games he has allowed five hits and struck out 12. His total of 13 strikeouts tops the staff.

The most impressive punchout probably came in the fifth inning, after Josh Willingham singled. That brought Wilson face-to-face with Justin Morneau -- specifically the class of left-handed power threat he would have to come out of the bullpen to confront.

Wilson got Morneau to chase a nasty breaking pitch for strike three.

"He was very, very good," Hurdle said. "He had command of all his pitches. The command of the fastball sets everything up, but he threw two different breaking balls -- curve and slider -- and some changeups, as well. A very good outing."

Johnson's effort was also solid, the loss notwithstanding. He fanned two, giving him eight strikeouts in 5 2/3 spring innings.

The battle, also featuring Mike Zagurski, goes on.

The last word

"He could be one of those guys with the ability to go get a little something extra when he needs to go get it. But it's not like he's on cruise control the other times." -- manager Clint Hurdle on Gerrit Cole, who ended both the third and fourth innings with strikeouts with runners in scoring position.

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.