Cuts coming: Monroe or Pearce?

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PORT CHARLOTTE — Craig Monroe’s six homers and nine RBI are impressive, and his defense in the outfield also has been solid. Yet, GM Neal Huntington today said Steve Pearce remains in the mix for the job of backup outfielder and right-handed bat off the bench.

“That competition has been an intriguing one,” Huntington said.

“We may have a nice little choice on our hands at the end of spring training about which right-handed bat are we going to carry and the makeup of the bench, flexibility in terms of options.

“Last year, we ran into a couple of situations where we didn’t have flexibility because we had so many out-of-options players. That’s going to be part of our thought process as well.”

A non-roster player, Monroe has a clause in his contract which allows him to demand his release if he’s not on the 40-man roster by the end of spring training.

• Jeff Salazar and Garrett Jones probably will be among the first big group of players sent to minor league camp. Those cuts are expected tomorrow.

• The backup catcher battle remains a stalemate between Jason Jaramillo and Robinzon Diaz.

“Neither one has shown deficiencies to a point where it puts the other guy ahead. And neither one has taken the job and locked it down,” Huntington said. “J.J.’s come as advertised: good defense, good catch-and-throw, very solid receiver. Robinzon’s come as advertised: he’s the better bat of the two.

“It’s going to be a situation where we might not just go with one backup catcher. They both have options, they’re both young, they both have upside. There may be a transition during the course of the year where one keeps the job on opening day and if we’re not able to get enough at-bats, then we make a switch to keep them both fresh and both developing.”

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The reaper sharpens his scythe

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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Today’s lineup has the look of being “one last go-round” for a few players.

Early this morning, about an hour before the team bus pulled out for the Port Charlotte Stadium, there was an all-hands meeting in manager John Russell’s office. GM Neal Huntington, farm director Kyle Stark and the coaches attended.

The topic of discussion probably was cut-down down day, which could come as soon as tomorrow. There are 53 players in camp, but that number should be reduced by a half-dozen or more by the end of this week.

Today’s lineups:

Pirates — 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jose Tabata lf, 3. Adam LaRoche dh, 4. Craig Monroe rf, 5. Steve Pearce 1b, 6. Andy LaRoche 3b, 7. Brian Bixler ss, 8. Luis Cruz 2b, 9. Jason Jaramillo c. Tom Gorzelanny will start, piggy-backed by Jeff Karstens.

Rays — 1. Justin Ruggiano rf, 2. Carl Crawford lf, 3. Gabe Kapler cf, 4. Carlos Pena 1b, 5. Pat Burrell dh, 6. Morgan Ensberg 3b, 7. Reid Brignac ss, 8. Shawn Riggans c, 9. Adam Kennedy 2b. Matt Garza will pitch.

• Eric Hinske (ribcage bruise) will face live pitching Tuesday, but he doesn’t know yet whether it will be in minor-league camp or in the Pirates’ game that night against the Yankees. Hinkse said he “definitely” will be ready to play Wednesday against the Twins.

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Yer outta here!

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BRADENTON, Fla. — At least manager John Russell didn’t have to run laps in the outfield after making an early exit from today’s game against the Yankees.

Russell and second baseman Freddy Sanchez were ejected in the fifth inning by home plate umpire Rob Healey.

Sanchez was tossed first for … um, disagreeing with Healey’s strike zone. Russell went onto the field for a somewhat low-intensity, low-volume discussion, but also must have said some magic words to Healey.

“One of those things,” Sanchez said. “What can I say? I thought the third pitch was inside and high. (Healey) saw it a different way. I got a little frustrated.”

Spring training ejections are as rare as an Obama budget plan without a tax hike. So perhaps Sanchez will get some face time tonight on SportsCenter.

“I hope not,” Sanchez said, with a laugh. “I don’t want to make ESPN for that reason. I don’t want to get thrown out of any game, let alone a spring training game. I’m just trying to have some good at-bats.”

Russell and Sanchez walked off the field to standing ovations. Sanchez showered, dressed and left. Russell stuck around to watch the game in the clubhouse. The Pirates have a stationary camera in center field.

“At least I was able to watch the pitchers,” Russell said.

• The results — 12 batters, 12 outs, two strikeouts, no walks — were all that Ross Ohlendorf could ask for against the Yankees. “I was really happy with today,” Ohlendorf said.

Yet, he threw 54 pitches, one under his pitch-count limit. He faced a few three-ball counts and was aided by some nice defense. (For more on that, keep reading.)

“I made big pitches when I needed to,” Ohlendorf said. “Fifty-four (pitches) in four innings is pretty good. But since I only faced 12 guys, it wasn’t that efficient. I wish I hadn’t thrown as many balls.”

• The normally clean-shaven Ohlendorf is sporting a row of stubble, the start of a moustache. “I’m just trying it out,” he said with a sheepish smile.

• Sweet defensive play by Neil Walker in the second inning. Austin Jackson hit a hopper which hugged the third base line. Walker charged the ball, made a nifty backhanded grab and fired across the diamond in time to get Jackson. Walker had a hand in all three outs in the inning, which began with Jorge Posada’s pop-up into shallow left and ended with Kevin Cash’s grounder.

• Eric Hinske took live batting practice for the first time since Feb. 26. He also went through a full workout, shagging flies in left field. Hinske will take b.p. again Sunday, but is not yet ready for game action. He might be sent to the minor league complex to get some at-bats against live pitching.

• Tom Gorzelanny will start Sunday against Tampa. Jeff Karstens, Jason Davis, Chris Bootcheck and Sean Burnett also are expected to pitch. Matt Garza will start for the Rays.

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McCutchen scratched — no cause for alarm

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Andrew McCutchen was scratched from today’s lineup against the Yankees. Nate McLouth will start in center field and bat third. “No alarm, no injury,” said Pirates spokesman Matt Norby. “Just a change.” The original lineup was erroneously printed with McCutchen’s name instead of McLouth.

• Updating the Yankees’ travel roster today, no Xavier Nady and no Damaso Marte. Marte is back from the WBC, but is listed to pitch in the Yanks’ split-squad game today in Tampa against the Astros. The Associated Press reported Marte came back from the WBC with some shoulder soreness.

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Yankees bring split squad

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BRADENTON, Fla. — The Yankees will bring a split squad to McKenchnie Field this afternoon to face the Pirates. Xavier Nady does not appear to be making the trip. The starting lineups:

Yankees : 1. Melky Cabrera cf, 2. Nick Swisher rf, 3. Mark Teixeira 1b, Jorge Posada dh, 5. Austin Jackson lf, 6. Kevin Cash c, 7. Doug Bernier 2b, 8. Kevin Russo 3b, 9. Ramiro Pena ss. Phil Hughes will pitch.

Pirates: 1. Nyjer Morgan lf, 2. Freddy Sanchez 2b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Ryan Doumit c, 5. Adam LaRoche 1b, 6. Craig Monroe dh, 7. Jeff Salazar rf, 8. Neil Walker 3b, 9. Jack Wilson ss. Ross Ohlendorf will pitch.

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A debut, of sorts, for Powell

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CLEARWATER, Fla. — Jeremy Powell, who spent the past eight years pitching in Japan, got the save today in the Pirates’ 6-5 victory against the hated Phillies. It was his first appearance this spring, but he’s seen plenty of action in the past.

Powell, 32, was drafted by the Montreal Expos — remember them? — in 1994 and last pitched in the majors in 2000. He went 2-6 with a 5.29 ERA last year for Fukuoka of the Japanese Pacific League, and this winter signed with the Pirates as a free agent.

• The Phillies used a fielder’s choice, a walk and a fielding error by third baseman Andy LaRoche to load the bases with two outs in the fourth. Dave Davidson, fresh off the World Baseball Classic, replaced Zach Duke and got out of the jam.

“It was a nice confidence boost for him,” manager John Russell said.

John Mayberry Jr., a top prospect who’d already rolled up three homers and 10 RBI, worked a full count. When Mayberry struck out swinging at a fastball, catcher Robinzon Diaz burst up out of his crouch and pumped his fist.

• With two outs in the fifth inning, Andrew McCutchen walked and stole second. LaRoche followed with a grounder just inside the third base line.

McCutchen scored easily. Although the strong throw from left field went to second baseman Miguel Cairo, LaRoche decided to try for a double.

Oops.

Cairo caught the ball and spun toward first base, his arm cocked to throw, hoping only that LaRoche had made a too-wide turn around the bag. Instead, LaRoche was two steps away, chugging hard. Surprised, Cairo simply reached out and tagged LaRoche.

• Jeff Salazar won the game with a three-run homer in the ninth. Salazar is trying to stay in the hunt for a bench job, though he’s handicapped by being a lefty hitter on a squad loaded with lefty bats.

It was Salazar’s second homer of the spring, but it also was his first hit in four games. Salazar is batting .208.

• Ross Ohlendorf will start Saturday and toss three innings against the Yankees. Denny Bautista, Chris Bootcheck, Sean Burnett, Jesse Chavez, Craig Hansen and Donnie Veal also are slated to pitch. Phil Hughes will start for the Bronx Bombers.

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How’s the weather?

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CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Weather Channel is coming to the Pirates’ spring training camp. Really.

TWC will broadcast Monday night from McKechnie Field during the Rays-Pirates game. Meteorologist Stephanie Abrams will do live remotes from 7 to 10 p.m. during the “Evening Edition” show.

Abrams also will interview players and staff about how the change from warm, Florida weather to chilly, northern weather affects them early in the season.

• Lineup for today’s game against the (gack!) World Champion Phillies:

1. Nyjer Morgan lf, 2. Andrew McCutchen cf, 3. Andy LaRoche 3b, 4. Ryan Doumit dh, 5. Steve Pearce rf, 6. Garrett Jones 1b, 7. Robinzon Diaz c, 8. Brian Bixler 2b, 9. Luis Cruz ss. Zach Duke will pitch.

• Brandon Moss was in the clubhouse early this morning, before the team bus left for the trip up I-275. Moss is running, and getting rehab on his sprained right thumb. “I’m doing all right,” Moss said. “It’s still a little sore and stiff.”

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Served cold, a tasty dish for Monroe

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Craig Monroe did not call it revenge. He didn’t call it anything, in fact.

When asked if it felt a little extra good today to hit three homers against the Twins — the team which unceremoniously dumped him midway through last season — Monroe just smiled.

“I don’t want to go there,” he said.

At 32 and as a non-roster invitee, Monroe is battling for a bench job. He knows the Pirates crave right-handed power.

“We helped Craig Monroe make the (Pirates) team,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He looks like he really worked hard this winter, and he killed us today.”

The Twins cut Monroe last August after he hit .202 with eight homers in 58 games.

Today, he went deep twice against Minnesota right-hander Scott Baker. Monroe jumped on a fastball in the second inning, then assaulted a curveball in the third.

“They weren’t great pitches, and he did what he should do with them,” Baker said. “That guy … he’s always been a Twins killer. I don’t know why that should change.”

Monroe had a bit of sympathy for his former teammate.

“Bake’s a good friend,” Monroe said. “You always feel bad when it’s your buddy. At the same time, I’m pushing and working hard, trying to make this team. I’m trying to open up some eyes.”

Think there are any eyes still closed?

“It’s early in spring,” Monroe said. “I’m not going to get ahead of myself. I’m going to keep working with (hitting coach) Donny Long in the cage.

“Who knows, guys? It’s so early right now. It’s one of those things … the process, the plan, believing in myself, trying to get back to what I know I’m capable of doing.”

• The Pirates have played 14 of their 35 Grapefruit League games. Monroe already has six homers, matching Brad “Big Country” Eldred’s output in the spring of 2007.

“It’s nice to see, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” manager John Russell said.

Russell has a point.

Since 1986, the Pirates’ high for spring training homers is eight, set by Craig Wilson in 2005. Wilson went on to hit five homers during the ’05 regular season.

• Monroe said he once hit three homers in a game almost a decade ago with the Double-A Tulsa Drillers. “I think I had nine RBI that day,” Monroe said, smiling at the memory. “Pretty awesome day.”

• Injury updates, good news and bad:

… Eric Hinske hit 60 balls off a tee and threw long toss. He’s making good progress and should be back within the next few days. Verdict: Good news. See ya soon, slugger.

… Andy Phillips has not played since Saturday. when his back tightened up on the ride back from a game in Fort Myers. He’s day to day. Verdict: Bad news. Can’t make the club in the tub.

… Phil Dumatrait had another setback — his third, for those of you keeping score at home — with his shoulder. He was shut down and won’t pitch off the mound again for a week to 10 days. “It’s not that big of a setback,” manager John Russell said. “It’s not like he’s starting at ground zero.” Verdict: Bad news. The lefty’s chances of pitching in the majors continue to dwindle.

… Shelby Ford sustained a bruised right wrist Wednesday while diving for a ball. “He’ll be down a few days,” Russell said. Verdict: Bad news. Be sure to take care of that wrist back in minor league camp.

• Zach Duke will start Friday against Philadelphia. Daniel McCutchen, Matt Capps, Brian Slocum and Dave Davidson (who is back from the World Baseball Classic) also are slated to pitch. Joe Blanton will start for the Phillies.

• Looking ahead, the Pirates will see youngsters Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy on Saturday when the hated Yankees visit McKechnie Field. Kennedy’s name was mentioned during the early round of trade talks which eventually led to Xavier Nady pulling on pinstripes.

• Ex-Pirate Kip Wells signed a minor league contract with the Washington Nationals. And you thought the Pirates were desperate for pitching help.

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Ford has bruised wrist

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Second baseman Shelby Ford left the field this morning during workouts escorted by a trainer. That’s never good news.

When I walked up to Ford in the clubhouse a few minutes ago, he had an ice pack strapped to his right wrist.

“Just a contusion,” Ford said. “Nothing serious.”

Ford sustained the bruise yesterday when he tumbled and landed awkwardly on his right arm. He is not in the lineup today against the Twins, but that’s not unusual, since Ford played yesterday against the Blue Jays. He is still listed on the travel roster for tomorrow’s game against the Phillies.

• Completing the lineups for today, the Twins:

1. Denard span rf, 2. Matt Tolbert 2b, 3. Carlos Gomez cf, 4. Delmon Young lf, 5. Danny Valencia 3b, 6. Brock Peterson dh, 7. Matt Macri 1b, 8. Wilson Ramos c, 9. Trevor Plouffe ss. Scott Baker will pitch.

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Hinske makes progress, Dumatrait has setback

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Eric Hinske’s smile was the giveaway.

“No pain, getting better,” Hinske told me a few minutes ago after finishing a round of indoor batting practice. “Fifty swings, no pain.”

Hinske has not played in two weeks after sustaining a bruised ribcage when he smashed into the outfield wall while making a catch.

Wednesday, Hinske took 50 swings off a tee and threw from 60 feet without problem. Today, he took another 50 swings and will throw from 90 feet.

There still is no announced timetable for when Hinske will return to game action.

• Phil Dumatrait was shut down for two days after feeling what he said was “more soreness than normal” after throwing a batting practice session. This morning, the lefty said he’s been cleared to resume throwing again.

There is no chance Dumatrait will be ready for Opening Day, and likely will begin the season on the disabled list.

• The lineup for today’s game against the Twins:

1. Nate McLouth cf, 2. Freddy Sanchez 2b, 3. Ryan Doumit c, 4. Adam LaRoche 1b, 5. Craig Monroe rf, 6. Steve Pearce dh, 7. Jose Tabata lf, 8. Neil Walker 3b, 9. Jack Wilson ss. Virgil Vasquez will pitch.

• Jimmy Barthmaier and Ron Uviedo will pitch a minor league scrimmage this afternoon at Pirate City.

• Players who will not make the trip tomorrow to Clearwater, Fla., for the game against the Phillies: Jason Jaramillo, Adam LaRoche, Sanchez, Wilson, Monroe, McLouth, Hinske and Brandon Moss.

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