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LaRoche will miss spring opener

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Third baseman Andy LaRoche, who’s resting a sore lower back, will miss Wednesday’s Grapefruit League opener against Philadelphia and likely also the next day’s game against Boston.

“I doubt we’d just throw him out there in the first game after missing a few days,” manager John Russell said this afternoon.

The Pirates had a short workout today — the only on-field work the pitchers did was baserunning — and were off the fields in two hours. LaRoche sat out again, but did field grounders with coaches Perry Hill and Tony Beasley and took 50 swings of soft-toss in the cages.

LaRoche expects to return to action Monday, but might be held out of the live batting practice session.

“I feel good,” LaRoche said. “I tried to talk them into letting me go out there two days ago, but they want to take it slow.”

A couple of years ago, LaRoche was hobbled by a protruding disc. He did not need surgery and the problem went away when LaRoche began a dedicated exercise program.

“My back felt great and this offseason I didn’t really stick with (the exercises) like I should,” LaRoche admitted. “I guess the doctors were right when they said I’ll have to stick with them for the rest of my career.”

LaRoche’s flare-up last week was not severe enough to require an MRI exam. The pain was limited to his lower back, so doctors were reasonably certain there was no nerve involvement.

“The trainers told me I’ll probably have the first two games off,” LaRoche said. “He said, ‘maybe.’ There’s really no rush right now. I’d love to be out there, but it’s really not my choice.”

• The Pirates still plan to use nine relievers (one per inning) and no starters Wednesday against the Phillies.

Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan wants each starter to throw off a mound three times before the games begin.

“Joe has identified 10 starters,” Russell said. “For the first way through, they’ll kind of piggy-back each other. If Paul (Maholm) starts a game, we might piggy-back him with Zach (Duke). If (Ian) Snell starts, we might piggy-back him with (Ross) Ohlendorf. They’ll get their innings and stay on kind of a five-day rotation to start.”

• Even though spring training is a week longer than usual, Russell doesn’t necessarily expect cuts to come later. “We have fewer pitchers (than last year) and we have to cover ourselves,” Russell said. “But once minor league camp starts we can always pull guys off. The biggest thing is, if you’re gonna send a guy out (anyway) are you hindering his development by making him stay? If we know he’s not going to make the club, we’d rather get him on his progression to start his season than just to give us backup.”

• Phil Dumatrait (shoulder) might not be ready to begin the season in the starting rotation. But the Pirates have no plans to convert him to a full-time reliever. “We want to keep Phil stretched out, so we’ll continue to rehab him as a starting pitcher,” Russell said. “We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully, there are no setbacks. We’ll get him going as a starter and see how he progresses.”

• Russell and bench coach Gary Varsho have only begun tinkering lineup ideas for spring training, and not a lot is set in stone yet for the regular season. However, Russell indicated that he doesn’t expect to bat outfielder Nyjer Morgan in the ninth spot. “When we did it last year, we had (Xavier) Nady and (Jason) Bay, some more experienced hitters in the middle of our lineup, and it seemed at times to be a pretty good thing for us. Until we look at the dynamic of our lineup … we have options with the speed, so I don’t know that we’re going to do the pitcher eighth. I don’t think it will be that advantageous for us.”

• All the buzz about Pedro Alvarez has overshadowed another top prospect in camp. “You should watch (Jose) Tabata hit as well,” Russell said. “He’s kind of going under the radar in this camp, but the kid is a special bat, as well. We’re very excited about both of them and they both have done very well.”

• Two of the Pirates’ former top draft picks were in the news last week. Kris Benson’s latest comeback attempt is with the Texas Rangers. He signed a minor league contract. The National Post in Ontario, Canada, ran an article about Bryan Bullington, who is in camp with the Toronto Blue Jays. Bullington had no harsh words for the Pirates — in fact, he is hardly quoted in the story — but he did say his pitching mechanics were out of whack by the time the Pirates released him. “My arm kind of forgot where its natural slot was,” Bullington said. He added that Scott Radinsky, pitching coach for Cleveland’s Triple-A team, straightened him out.

• I’m happy to see my alma mater, North Catholic, has put its girls and boys basketball teams into the WPIAL semifinals. As a Penn State grad, I never really have much reason to follow college hoops. But at least I can enjoy reading the Trib’s on-line updates of high school ball.

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