Ohlendorf is in; the rest is up for grabs

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BRADENTON, Fla. — It is unofficially official: Ross Ohlendorf has sewn up the No. 4 spot in the rotation.

“He’s put himself in a real good position, put it that way,” manager John Russell said tonight. “Each outing, he’s gotten better.”

The battle for the final rotation job is down to either Jeff Karstens or Virgil Vasquez. Karstens was sharp Wednesday against the Rays. Tonight, Vasquez yielded three runs on five hits in 5 2/3 innings against the Jays.

Karstens seems to have an edge, but Russell said no decision has been made.

“We’ll let you know,” Russell said, with a sly smile.

Russell and the rest of the braintrust met this morning at Pirate City to map out the next — and perhaps final — round of roster cuts. The Pirates still have 40 players in camp with just eight games to go.

“We went over a lot of scenarios,” Russell said. “I don’t know the exact day we’re going to announce everything. We’re not only looking at the fifth starter, but the depth and a lot of different things.”

• Brian Bixler and Luis Cruz are vying for the backup infielder’s job. Bixler went 1 for 2. He’s played in 19 of the past 20 games and is hitting .340. Cruz singled in his only at-bat, nudging his average up to .200.

“Great competition,” Russell said. “They’re both doing a nice job. Bix has hit a little bit better, but Luis is very steady in the infield. They’re going to make our decision pretty tough.”

What about Andy Phillips, who hasn’t played since March 7 due to a sore back?

“Until we can get him back on the field, we’re looking at the guys who are healthy,” Russell said.

Phillips took five at-bats today in a minor league game. He’s slated to play the infield Saturday in another minor league game. If all goes well, he should be back with the Pirates on Sunday.

• Nate McLouth singled in his first at-bat tonight. He has reached base safely in 15 straight games.

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Bob Nutting in the house

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Owner Bob Nutting met today with farm director Kyle Stark and other scouting staff. A few minutes ago, Nutting stopped by the press box at McKechnie Field before the night game against Toronto.

Tomorrow morning, Nutting will meet with manager John Russell and the coaching staff. Nutting was supposed to speak at a team meeting in February, but was too ill to come to Bradenton. This weekend, Nutting has opted to not address the major league players.

“At this point, we’re getting on toward the end of spring training,” Nutting said. “Those guys just need to focus on hitting and pitching. They don’t need any distractions.”

Instead, Nutting will spend most of his time with the minor leaguers at Pirate City. He also is escorting a group of the team’s top-level corporate sponsors who are here for games against the Blue Jays and Phillies.

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More questions than answers, for now

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Jose Tabata’s “meet the press” session today raised many more questions than it answered. How did his wife fake a pregnancy? When did the fake birth “happen,” and why wasn’t he there? How could he not be suspicious when he didn’t meet “his” baby for two months? How could he be unaware of his wife’s many aliases and criminal past? Why didn’t anyone with the Yankees or Pirates spot any red flags?

As the police investigation continues, the Pirates are remaining tight-lipped. Tabata declined to field questions, and read his statement only in Spanish. This case likely will get a bit stranger before it’s all said and done.

• I asked Tabata’s agent, Ulises Cabrera, if any members of Tabata’s immediate family would be coming from Venezuela to Florida to give him support. “You’re looking at his family here,” Cabrera said, sweeping his arm around the Pirate City complex. “It’s the Pirates.”

The lack of a strong, close-by family support system might begin to explain how Tabata, who came to America as a 17-year-old and still speaks only a bit of English, could be so easily duped.

• The lineups for tonight’s game:

Blue Jays — 1. Marco Scutaro ss, 2. Brad Emaus 2b, 3. Alex Rios rf, 4. Vernon Wells cf, 5. Lyle Overbay 1b, 6. Scott Rolen 3b, 7. Rod Barajas c, 8. Travis Snider lf, 9. Howie Clark dh. Roy Halladay will pitch.

Pirates — 1. Nyjer Morgan lf, Freddy Sanchez 2b, 3. Nate McLouth cf, 4. Ryan Doumit c, 5. Eric Hinske 1b, 6. Brandon Moss rf, 7. Andy LaRoche 3b, Brian Bixler ss, Virgil Vasquez rhp.

• Paul Maholm pitched against the New York Yankees’ Triple-A team at Pirate City. Maholm went seven innings (88 pitches/67 strikes) and allowed five runs (two earned) on five hits and struck out six.

• Infielder Andy Phillips, recovering from a sore back, also played in the minor league game. “I got five at-bats, hit and ran the bases,” Phillips said. “Everything went real good.” It was Phillips’ first game action since March 7.

• Jesse Chavez pitched three innings against the Yankees’ Double-A club and gave up one run on three hits. He walked one and struck out four.

• Ian Snell will start Saturday against the Phillies. John Grabow, Chris Bootcheck, Sean Burnett, Denny Bautista, Craig Hansen, Matt Capps, Jason Davis and Donnie Veal will be available in the bullpen. Jamie Moyer will start for the Phillies.

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Tabata to addresss media today

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Outfielder Jose Tabata will speak with reporters this morning after workouts conclude at the minor league camp at Pirate City.

The Pirates have kept Tabata away from the media the past few days, in the wake of his wife being charged by police in the alleged abduction of a 2-month-old girl.

• The Pirates sent a pair of scouts to Arizona to take a look at infielder Jeff Baker, whom the Rockies have put on the trading block. Baker’s natural position is third base, but he also has been used at second base and the corner outfield spots.

Baker, 27, has fallen out of favor with manager Clint Hurdle and has been slowed by injuries. This spring, Baker is on the mend from a sore elbow.

Baker is out of options. The Astros, Yankees and Phillies also are interested in him.

• Surprise, surprise. MLB.com reports the Phillies already are trying to unload catcher Ronny Paulino. His next stop could be Florida.

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Karstens stays in the hunt

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PORT CHARLOTTE — Locked in a battle for the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation, Jeff Karstens is trying to take it in stride.

“If it comes down to Virgil (Vasquez) getting the spot, that means I didn’t deserve it,” Karstens said. “I don’t look at it as a negative. It’s a long season. No team uses just five starters the whole year.”

That doesn’t mean Karstens isn’t battling all-out to win the job. Tonight, he was sharp — except for one pitch to Adam Kennedy — for five innings in the Pirates’ 4-2 loss against the Rays.

Karstens gave up five hits, including Kennedy’s two-run homer in the second inning. The right-hander walked two and struck out five of the 20 batters he faced.

“There’s still some stuff I need to work on,” Karstens said. “But overall I feel a lot better than I did the last time.”

In his previous outing, Karstens gave up four runs on three hits in three innings against the Red Sox.

Karstens said his arm slot is too high early in the game.

“I don’t do it (warming up) in the bullpen,” Karstens said. “But when I get in the game, it kind of takes over. We’re trying to get it right.”

Karstens said it mostly happens when he tries to throw his curveball.

“I think to get on top I have to get my glove up,” he said. “It’s muscle memory because I’ve been doing it so long. We’re trying to break that.”

Karstens will have one more chance to impress management. Tuesday’s game against the Twins will be his last start of spring training. Vasquez is slated to start Friday against the Blue Jays.

Karstens has one minor league option remaining, so the Pirates aren’t pressed into a keep-him-or-lose-him situation.

• Jack Wilson said his asthma began acting up as he was fielding grounders before tonight’s game. The combination of a dry, dusty infield and windy conditions make it tough.

“Lots of shortness of breath,” Wilson said. “I felt like I played 15 innings.”

Wilson lasted one inning, then called it a night.

The situation doesn’t happen that often during the regular season, Wilson said, because big league stadiums keep out the wind better than the small, relatively open spring training parks.

• Good news from tonight’s game: Brandon Moss went 3 for 4, scored the Pirates’ first run and drove in the second. He also made a slick, diving catch in right field.

• Bad news tonight: the Pirates sent 34 batters to the plate against six Rays pitchers and drew … zero walks.

• More bad news: Donnie Veal, the Rule 5 lefty, appears to be pitching his way back to the Cubs. Veal worked a sloppy 1 1/3 innings and allowed two runs on one hit, two walks and one hit batter. This spring, Veal has issued 12 walks in 11 innings.

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Asthma forces Wilson out of game

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PORT CHARLOTTE — Jack Wilson’s asthma flared up and he was forced to heave tonight’s game against the Rays after one inning. Wilson left the field with head athletic trainer Brad Henderson.

Wilson took one at-bat and popped out. He played shortstop in the bottom of the first inning, but did not make any plays in the field.

According to a team spokesman, Wilson’s condition is not serious and he left the game merely as a precaution.

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Getting a late start

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BRADENTON, Fla. — The game time for today’s game between the Pirates and the Tampa Bay Rays at McKechnie Field has been pushed back due to rain. The first pitch is expected to be thrown at 1:15 p.m. instead of the scheduled 1:05 p.m. start.

It looks clear now, but it drizzled for about five minutes around 12:45 p.m.

• Here is the lineup for today’s game:

1. Nyjer Morgan lf, 2. Andrew McCutchen cf, 3. Ramon Vazquez 2b, 4. Adam LaRoche 1b, 5. Eric Hinske 3b, 6. Brandon Moss rh, 7. Jack Wilson ss, 8. Jason Jaramillo c, 9. Zach Duke p.

• Hinske will get his first start at third base for the Pirates. He’s played mainly right field for the Pirates but has also been the designated hitter. Hinske has played all the corners — right and left field and first and third base — throughout his career.

—Tricia Lafferty

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A rare spring no-hitter

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Today’s matchup between the Pirates and the Reds was a rarity for a spring training game.

Reds pitcher Aaron Harang had a no-hitter through six innings before he called it a day.

The Pirates mustered just two hits in the 6-0 loss to the Reds at McKechnie Field. Nate McLouth recorded the first hit when with a lead-off single in the seventh.

Pirates starting pitcher Ian Snell had a tough day giving up six runs in 4.1 innings. He left the game earlier than expected because of a blister that flared up on the side of his big toe on his right foot.

Snell said he started to feel the blister in the second inning. That’s when he gave up five runs.

Snell didn’t seem at all discouraged by the disappointing outing. He kept stressing that it’s spring training and the most important thing is that he got his work in. Manager John Russell wasn’t concerned either about Snell’s pitching or his toe.

Sean Burnett, Matt Capps, Jason Davis and Denny Bautista combined for 4.2 scoreless innings and held the Reds to two hits.

General manager Neal Huntington provided an injury update before the game today. Reliever Evan Meek is expected to miss approximately a week due to a tired shoulder. Utility player Andy Phillips — who hasn’t played since March 7 — will have an injection in his back, where he has bulging discs. Huntington said he hopes Phillips can return this weekend.

• Brandon Moss played right field today for the first time since bruising his thumb on March 7. Moss is grateful he’s returned to the lineup so quickly considering his dismal prognosis the day he was injured.

“The Twins doctor told me it would probably be a couple months,” Moss said. “I said, ‘What does it look like?’ She said, ‘Probably a couple months.’ I was freaking out.”

• Zach Duke will get the start tomorrow when the Tampa Bay Rays visit McKechnie Field.

— Tricia Lafferty

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Pirates ready for Reds . . . again

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It’s a tad chilly here today at McKechnie Field or maybe I should say breezy. It’s 63 degrees and sunny but a bit windy. Considering it’s 39 degrees in Pittsburgh, I won’t complain.

The Pirates are on the field practicing pickoff moves and rundowns, but other than that, there’s not much going on.

The Pirates will play the Cincinnati Reds — for the second day in a row — today at 1:05 p.m. Here is the Pirates’ starting lineup:

1. Jack Wilson ss, 2. Freddy Sanchez 2b, 3. Nate McLouth cf, 4. Ryan Doumit c, 5. Adam LaRoche 1b, 6. Craig Monroe lf, 7. Brandon Moss rf, 8. Andy LaRoche 3b, 9. Ian Snell p.

—Tricia Lafferty

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Opening-day starter named, sorta

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SARASOTA, Fla. — There doesn’t seem to be much news that comes out of spring training games, but manager John Russell offered some notable insight today.

After the game, he practically named Paul Maholm the opening-day starter.

“I think everybody knows it’s Paul,” Russell said. “We haven’t officially told anybody. Obviously, we’re probably leaning toward Paul.”

It comes as no surprise that Maholm would be the guy considering he’s been the Pirates’ strongest and most consistent pitcher all spring.

His line reads like this through 19 2/3 innings: 1 run, 10 hits, one walk, 11 strikeouts.

“He’s right on track,” Russell said. “He’s being very effective using all his pitches. Obviously he’s very confident in what he’s doing. It shows.”

Against the Reds today, he pitched six innings — his longest outing of the spring — and gave up just three hits and struck out four. He hasn’t allowed a run in his past 15 2/3 innings of work.

Reporters who talked to Maholm today before speaking with Russell asked him if he’d been informed about who would get the nod on opening day.

He didn’t seem to be thinking too far ahead.

“Until they come up to me, I pitch when they tell me to,” Maholm said. “It would be an honor (to start on opening day), but they make the decisions.”

• The Pirates came away with a 6-5 win today. It was the second time in three games, the game came down to the final inning.

This time, it wasn’t as exciting for the Pirates like when Anderson Machado knocked in the winning run in the bottom of the 10th Wednesday.

Instead, the Pirates watched a 6-0 advantage turn into 6-5. They came close to losing the lead when Pirates pitcher Craig Hansen loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth. He managed to escape the jam when Joey Votto struck out.

• Maholm was the lone bright spot of the Pirates’ pitching. Matt Capps gave up a two-run homer to Jay Bruce in the seventh inning. Jesse Chavez allowed three runs — two of them earned — in the eighth as the Reds came within a run.

• Centerfielder Nate McLouth hit a two-run homer to put the Pirates ahead, 2-0, in the fourth inning and third baseman Ramon Vazquez hit a two-run homer in the sixth to give the Pirates a 6-0 advantage. Catcher Ryan Doumit contributed to the offense going 3-for-3 with a double and a run scored.

• Rightfielder Brandon Moss wasn’t in the lineup as expected. Moss, though, didn’t experience a setback after being Pirates’ designated hitter Friday. He played the outfield in a minor league game at Pirate City today and Russell said he expects him to play right field for the Pirates tomorrow.

• Ian Snell will get the start tomorrow. It’ll be just his second start of the spring with the Pirates since he spent most of came with Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.

• Russell said utility player Andy Phillips — who hasn’t played since March 7 — is working his way back but he’s not sure when he’ll be ready to play.

“His back still bothering him a little bit,” Russell said. “He has a couple bulging disks — which aren’t abnormal — so he’s gonna try to quiet those down before he gets back.”

— Tricia Lafferty

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