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Hart set to claim final rotation spot

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BRADENTON, Fla. — And the Pirates’ No. 5 starter is … Kevin Hart?

It sure sounded that way today, listening to manager John Russell chat with reporters after the second day of spring training workouts.

This offseason, management has described the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation being a toss-up between Hart and Daniel McCutchen, with Brad Lincoln providing pressure from Triple-A.

This afternoon, however, Russell mentioned Hart when talking about the starting pitchers, then listed McCutchen among the bullpen crew.

“There’s competition and (Hart) knows it,” Russell said. “He’s going to do everything he can to make sure he makes a good impression and shows he’s ready for it. We’ve got some other very good candidates, but he’s working awfully hard. Time will tell, but he’s in a good position right now.”

Hart tweaked his mechanics this past offseason, hoping to avoid a repeat of his performance (1-8, 6.92 ERA in 10 starts) with the Pirates last year.

“He feels a lot more comfortable,” Russell said. “You can tell he’s on a mission. Everything he’s doing, from his PFPs (fielding drills) to his sides, he’s really focusing on what he’s got going on.”

Hart looked especially sharp a month ago in minicamp and was just as good Thursday in his spring debut bullpen session. Hart was so good, in fact, that even the normally stoic Russell gushed a bit.

“He’s throwing the ball really, really well,” Russell said, raising his voice and his eyebrows in emphasis. “So we’re very excited.”

A few other notes from this afternoon’s workout at Pirate City:

— Neil Walker worked out at another new position — second base. “I’m going to try ‘em all,” Walker said, with a laugh. Walker fielded grounders from infield coach Carlos Garcia on Field 3.

— Reliever Jean Machi was given medical clearance and threw a bullpen session. Machi was held out of yesterday’s workout for extra physical tests.

— Jimmy  Barthmaier (shoulder surgery) threw off the bullpen mound. Coach Luis Dorante caught Barthmaier’s session. Before it began, Dorante shooed away volunteer coach Manny Sanguillen, who cracked that he was going to start yelling if Dorante let a single pitch get past him. “Go away. Go watch the catchers hit, Manny,” Dorante said with a wink.

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