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Pivotal start for JVB

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CINCINNATI — This, potentially, is a big start tonight for right-hander John Van Benschoten.

It’s JVB’s first time on the mound in his hometown. It’s a chance for him to show he deserves management’s confidence. It could be an audition to remain with the Pirates, in some capacity, after this season.

For a while, general manager Neal Huntington has referred to JVB as the Pirates’ “first option” if a starter goes down. It’s clear Bryan Bullington no longer figures in the team’s plans. Jimmy Barthmaier flunked his test last week. Ty Taubenheim looked good, but must still show more. Yoslan Herrera is signed through 2009, but, at 27 years old, continues to plod along at Double-A.

Van Benschoten has flamed out before in the majors. If he flops again, he could find himself back at his old Kentucky home (he lives across the river from Great American Ball Park, in Ludlow, Ky.) for longer than just the offseason.

Manager John Russell liked what he saw Saturday, when JVB tossed a scoreless 13th inning against Tampa Bay and wound up with his second career win.

“I’d like him to throw like he did out of the bullpen a little bit more,” Russell said. “It looked like he was a little bit more aggressive (in the ‘pen). We want him to be aggressive to contact, aggressive to the zone.

“We don’t want him to pick at the zone and not always look like it’s a 2-0 or 3-1 count. We want him to get ahead and stay ahead.” It can be a mental thing for a pitcher, attacking the zone better as a reliever than as a starter.

“Sometimes when you start games, you feel like, ‘I’ve got to pitch x-number of innings, x-number of pitches, so there’s a pace I have to have,’ ” Russell said. “We’ve been telling them, from the first inning on you should see how hard you can go for as long as you can go.

“It’s not raring back and overthrowing. It’s getting after it from the first pitch on, and we’ll see where we’re at from there. Nolan Ryan used to say he threw harder as the game went on. Well, he stayed strong the whole game and I think that’s the key.”

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