2/25/2014 5:21 P.M. ET
And they're off: Spring slate just the start for Bucs
Grapefruit opener against Yankees will lift curtain on whirlwind 2014 schedule
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Irregular visitors gracing Pirate City on their tours of Florida Spring Training camps made a point of noting that the Bucs had the longest and most intense workouts of any team they had checked out.
Well, after two weeks of such family grunt work, the Pirates will finally see some other uniforms.
It's time for the real games -- if not yet the ones that count. The Bucs launch their 31-installment spring slate on Wednesday, hosting the New York Yankees in McKechnie Field at 1:05 p.m. ET.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is expected to run out his lineup of regular starters for the inaugural. He hadn't yet posted a batting order, but penciled in to start: the regular outfield of Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata; Pedro Alvarez, Jordy Mercer, Neil Walker and Gaby Sanchez around the horn in the infield; and catcher Russell Martin.
That would keep the wraps on the spring's biggest curiosity a little bit longer. But Gregory Polanco will take over in right after Tabata has a couple of at-bats.
"It's the right time to start playing some games," Hurdle said after his troops got through the last of the preliminaries, the Golds' 4-3 win over the Blacks in Tuesday's annual charity intrasquad game at McKechnie Field. "We've worked extremely hard for two weeks, and it'll be nice to put it up against some competition."
It starts with a double dose in the Yankees' traveling bubble. Francisco Liriano, the Bucs' Opening Day starter, will confront Ivan Nova on Wednesday in front of the usual large New York media throng and the first of unusually large McKechnie Field crowds.
Always a hot item in Bradenton, their long-time spring home, the Bucs are scalding after 94 wins and a playoff appearance. Sales of Spring Training tickets are up 28 percent, individual-game tickets are up 36 percent and group ticket sales are up 130 percent for the 15-game home Grapefruit League home slate.
And if Wednesday's opener isn't high-profile enough, the Pirates will return the favor with a Thursday visit to the Yankees in Tampa -- where Derek Jeter is scheduled to make the spring debut of his farewell season.
That second game between the teams will be on MLB.TV.
Everyone take a really deep breath. Between spring and regular-season games, Wednesday's will be the Pirates' first of 193, through Sept. 28. That's 193 games in 215 days -- a wild ride with few stops.
Twenty of the 29 Grapefruit League games -- March 28-29 exhibition games in Philadelphia will lower the spring curtain -- are against teams in the AL East, which are also on the Pirates' 2014 Interleague schedule.
"It's the schedule we're given. We can't do anything about it, just play the games when they show up," said Hurdle, who does not see any advantage in early looks at teams on the Pirates' regular-season schedule because "it depends on which pitchers you face here."
One thing Hurdle intends to do with the gauntlet is try to use it as the springboard to a fast start. Everybody obviously talks about wanting to get off to fast starts, but the Bucs' skipper intends to do something about it.
Hurdle is known to be big on projects. One of his big ones entering last season was finding a cure for the Pirates' tendency to come out of off days flat. In response to a specific change in its off-day regimen, the team last season was 13-5 after byes.
So what's the answer to getaways of 2-6 and 1-5 the last two seasons?
"We do have some things in mind that we'll share with you later," Hurdle said. "We first want to get moving in that direction, covering what we'll talk about."
Hurdle did lodge a protest against the idea that those slow starts had anything to do with preparation.
"We supposedly had the roughest schedule in baseball for the first 40 games in back-to-back years. That factors in," Hurdle said. "And we opened up in the West, a bad place for us -- although we were able to change that later in the season. But it has been a challenge coming out, so we want to play well early. But everybody does."
The early play in the Grapefruit League will certainly be entertaining. As if having the Yankees and the World Series champion Red Sox (the first of three meetings is Monday at McKechnie Field) weren't enough, the Bucs on Sunday will bus to Clearwater to face the Phillies and A.J. Burnett.
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.