2/14/2014 2:40 P.M. ET
Hurdle's focus this spring: Situational hitting
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Clint Hurdle's Spring Trainings come with bull's-eyes. And his Pirates usually hit them.
"The focal point last year was controlling the running game," Hurdle reminded.
Check. With considerable help from new catcher Russell Martin, the Bucs went from being the Majors' worst in 2012 in thwarting runners (who were successful on 154 of 173 steal attempts) to being one of the best in 2013 (Pittsburgh nabbed 43 of 138 thieves).
"And the year before, it was pitching inside," Hurdle added. "This time, it's the offense: We'll coach up these guys to be more consistent. Connecting the dots better offensively is at the top of our list, focusing on the fundamental part of the offensive game, the importance of that at-bat."
Shorthand for that: Situational hitting. Hurdle couldn't have been thinking of the time the '13 Bucs went six weeks between sacrifice flies, could he? Overall, the Pirates had 29 of those, and of the 30 Major League teams, only the Marlins (26) had fewer.
Whereas Miami lost 100 games, Pittsburgh won 94. But the Pirates' scoring average of 3.91 runs per game was by far the lowest of MLB's 10 playoff teams, and Hurdle reasoned, it did catch up to them in the National League Division Series loss to the Cardinals.
"In the playoffs, you will always face premium pitching," the manager said, "and you have to get to be better at turning over the lineup."
Wandy takes first step toward return
BRADENTON, Fla. -- For a veteran pitcher's first bullpen session of Spring Training, the attention on Wandy Rodriguez was ridiculous. For a guy who had not thrown a Major League pitch since June 5 and was being paid $7.5 million, it made all the sense.
And the left-hander's 28-pitch set on Friday with catcher Tony Sanchez brought him a step closer to resuming his career -- because it brought a smile to his lips.
"After my bullpen, I felt nothing. So I feel very good," Rodriguez said shortly after coming off the mound.
Admittedly, Rodriguez last summer "felt nothing" occasionally while trying to return from the forearm tendon strain he felt in the first inning in Atlanta on June 5. Ultimately, every rehab thrust was thrown to the curb by returning discomfort.
This was different. This followed months of rest, the prescribed cure for what eventually had been diagnosed as arthritis by Dr. James Andrews.
Rodriguez is on a similar, if somewhat more conservative, throwing program as the Pirates' other pitchers in camp. He will have two rest days between bullpen sessions; they rest one day. Rodriguez's next turn comes Monday.
Eppley among intriguing Pirates hurlers
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Several pitchers took the mound in Pirate City's Bob Friend bullpen on Friday morning under a bright spotlight.
Those taking their first turns of Spring Training included comeback lefty Wandy Rodriguez, newest face Yao-Hsun Yang and top prospect Jameson Taillon, whose very first pitch excited his catcher.
"Beauty!" Russell Martin exclaimed before returning the ball to the 22-year-old right-hander.
Still, one guy totally under the radar stood out in a very specific way. Righty Cody Eppley's sidearm deliveries were enough to make a right-handed batter wince at just the thought.
Eppley has been a virtually overlooked entry in the list of non-roster invitees to camp, but he brought a resume: In 2012, he was one of the busiest members of the Yankees' bullpen, appearing in 59 games and doing quite well (3.33 ERA).
"He did a great job for that team," said Chris Stewart, the Bucs' new backup catcher who caught Eppley as a member of those '12 Bombers. "He's not overpowering, but when he's on, he can be tough. A lot of ground balls."
Eppley was released in the middle of last season by the Yankees and signed with the Twins, who also released him in November. All along, he struggled in Triple-A (6.49 ERA in 41 appearances between the two organizations).
Maybe Eppley gives the Pirates a chance to reinvent the bullpen wheel. Match-up relievers are common, but they are predominantly tough lefties. Eppley's delivery figures to flummox right-handed swingers, but not lefties. True enough, righties have a lifetime average against him of .231 -- and lefties .386.
First number, last word
38: Total number of professional appearances -- since 2006 -- by 31-year-old Taiwanese left-hander Yang, signed and invited to camp as an international free agent by the Pirates on Thursday.
"There is a room in the house where my parents keep the hardware. They call it the 'Doghouse.' I sent my Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year Award to Mom, and she said, 'This one is going in the living room.' How cool is it when your Mom says that about you?"
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.