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8/16/2014 6:56 P.M. ET

Walker gets planned break from Bucs' lineup

WASHINGTON -- The day after Neil Walker had made his long-awaited return, his absence from Saturday's lineup provoked some uh-oh moments.

After all, the previous time Walker had tried to rebound from lower-back tightness, he had lasted only a half game then was down for 10 more days.

The alarm, however, was unnecessary: The Pirates' plan to ease Walker back into full-time, healthy service had included the scheduled break.

"I feel as good as I did [Friday night]. We just want to ensure everything stays quiet [with the back]," Walker said.

Walker is due to play each of the next three games. He may next sit out Wednesday night's start at home, to give him two more rest days with Thursday's off-day in the schedule.

"We've mapped out a plan for us to maximize his availability," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Our goal is to keep him on the field the rest of the season."

The Bucs thus began Saturday's game with their regular double-play tandem on the bench. Shortstop Jordy Mercer continued to get a variety of treatments for right forearm tightness. Mercer reported feeling better, ruling out the possibility of having to go on the disabled list.

"We're confident he'll be able to return well before 15 days," said Hurdle, citing the minimum term on the DL. "Meanwhile, we'll try to limit his activities."

Jayson Nix started at second against Washington lefty Gio Gonzalez, and Josh Harrison stayed at short.

Cole given green light to return to Bucs' rotation

WASHINGTON -- Gerrit Cole has gotten the green light to rejoin the Pirates' rotation. The only thing left to determine is when Cole will get the ball.

Assistant general manager Kyle Stark, who had personally scouted Cole's rehab outing Friday night for Triple-A Indianapolis in Louisville, and manager Clint Hurdle got their heads together Saturday afternoon and came to a quick agreement that the young right-hander is ready.

Cole, who went on the DL on July 9 with a sore latissimus, has two possible re-entry points: Either Wednesday night's series finale against Atlanta at PNC Park, which would come on regular four days' rest, or Friday's opener of a weekend series in Milwaukee.

"We anticipate we'll activate him when we determine when he will pitch the next time," Hurdle said. "[Friday's rehab start] went very well. He passed all the tests."

Cole went seven shutout innings on 92 pitches in Friday's wrap of his odd four-start rehab assignment.

In starts Nos. 1,3,4 -- all with the Triple-A Indians -- he threw a total of 18 shutout innings, yielding 11 hits; in start No. 2, he was rocked for five runs and 10 hits in 4 1/3 innings.

Pittsburgh's current probable starters for Wednesday and Friday are Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke, respectively. The rest of the current rotation consists of Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez and Vance Worley.

Whether the starter who relinquishes his spot to Cole gets recast in the bullpen "depends on who that guy will be," Hurdle said.

"We're still having multiple conversations," Hurdle added. "The guys we're talking about, I don't think, any of them have pitched in the bullpen with any regularity."

That doesn't eliminate anybody: All five current starters have predominantly started throughout their pro careers, Minor League phases included. The only one with significant relief experience is Morton, in the lower Minors with his original organization, Atlanta.

First number, last word

124: Runs scored by the Pirates since the All-Star break, in 27 games through Friday -- tops in the National League. Oakland led the Majors with 125 second-half runs.

"Laser ... they've got some high-tech stuff back there. Ice cups. Other things, all that fun stuff. I'm feeling better. And better is good." -- Mercer, on the treatment he is receiving from the Bucs' training staff for tightness in his right forearm.

Worth noting

Andrew McCutchen (avulsion rib fracture) continued to dial up his workouts, running the bases "close to 100 percent, letting it go," according to Hurdle.

The manager declined to speculate on McCutchen being able to return when he becomes eligible to come off the DL, on Tuesday.

"It wouldn't be fair to him. He's done a great job -- the staff has done a good job with him. We're really optimistic," Hurdle said. "And [McCutchen] has given is a very honest self-evaluation every day."

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.