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GM: McCutchen, Bixler ‘close’ to majors

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Andrew McCutchen is closer to the major leagues than general manager Neal Huntington expected. Yet, that did not prevent the Pirates from sending McCutchen and infielder Brian Bixler back to the minors this morning.

“Both players arguably deserve to be on a major league team,” Huntington said. “Both players have very strong springs. But at the same time, both players need to go get some work (in the minors).”

• The departure of Bixler, combined with Andy Phillips’ late start due to a sore back, means Luis Cruz almost certainly has locked up the final bench job. “Luis has the inside track at this time, but it’s not a done deal,” Huntington said.

• The Pirates still have not announced whether Jeff Karstens or Virgil Vasquez is the fifth starter. But every indication is, Karstens is the man.

Vasquez is not listed among the probable starters for the last six Grapefruit League games. Karstens will start Tuesday against the Twins. After that, it’s Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Ross Ohlendorf.

• Kevin Slowey of Upper St. Clair will start Saturday for the Twins in the spring training finale against the Pirates.

• Maholm will pitch Opening Day in St. Louis. Adam Wainwright will start for the Cardinals. The rest of the Cards’ rotation in that series: Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer and Chris Carpenter.

• Looking ahead to the series April 10-12 in Cincinnati, the Reds are expected to start Johnny Cueto, Micah Owings and Aaron Harang.

• If the Pirates’ rotation holds true and there are no rainouts in the opening week, Duke should be in line to start the Home Opener April 13 against the Astros.

• Phil Dumatrait (shoulder) threw two innings Saturday in a minor league game — his first significant action this spring — and reported no flare-ups of pain today. “Excellent,” Dumatrait said. “It was encouraging to get out there. It’s good to finally see some light at the end of the tunnel with this.”

Dumatrait will being the season on the disabled list and will stay here for extended spring training until he’s ready to go longer than five innings. “We’ll keep stretching him out,” Huntington said. “At best, he’s a month away (from rejoining the Pirates), and that’s if everything goes extremely well. He’s probably closer to six weeks away.”

• Evan Meek (shoulder) was supposed to pitch a couple of innings today, but has a stomach bug. Sitting at his locker this morning, Meek looked pretty queasy, so there’s not a good chance he’ll throw today. Meek has not pitched since March 20.

• Lineups for today’s game:

Reds — 1. Willy Taveras cf, 2. Chris Dickerson lf, 3. Joey Votto 1b, 4. Brandon Phillips 2b, 5. Jay Bruce rf, 6. Jeff Keppinger 3b, 7. Paul Janish ss, 8. Ryan Hanigan c, 9. Johnny Cueto rhp.

Pirates — 1. Nate McLouth cf, 2. Freddy Sanchez 2b, 3. Ryan Doumit c, 4. Eric Hinske rf, 5. Adam LaRoche 1b, 6. Craig Monroe lf, 7. Ramon Vazquez 3b, 8. Jack Wilson ss, 9. Ross Ohlendorf rhp.

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