Pitcher in the 8 hole

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BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates this afternoon play their long game against the Toronto Blue Jays. This is the odd season when the Pirates don’t make the 90-minute drive north to Dunedin, Fla., to visit the Jays.

Notice the two lineup oddities for the Pirates: Aki’s batting leadoff ahead of Andrew McCutchen. Pitcher Daniel McCutchen is in the No. 8 spot, ahead of Ronny Cedeno. You might recognize the fella batting leadoff for Toronto …

Lineups for today’s game:

Blue Jays — 1. Jose Bautista 3b, 2. Aaron Hill 2b, 3. Jeremy Reed rf, 4. Kyle Phillips 1b, 5. Edwin Encarnacion dh, 6. Chris Lubanski lf, 7. Alex Gonzalez ss, 8. Jose Molina c, 9. Joey Gathright cf. Brian Tallet p

Pirates — 1. Aki Iwamura b, 2. Andrew McCutchen cf, 3. Garrett Jones rf, 4. Ryan Doumit c, 5. Lastings Milledge lf, 6. Jeff Clement 1b, 7. Andy LaRoche 3b, 8. Daniel McCutchen rhp, 9. Ronny Cedeno ss.

— Former owner Kevin McClatchy will attend today’s game.

— Jeff Clement and Steve Pearce drilled at first base — fielding grounders, making throws to second, catching popups — with coach Carlos Garcia this morning, about an hour before the rest of the team took the field.

— Travel roster for Sunday’s split-squad game against the Rays: Ryan Doumit, Jason Jaramillo, Jeff Clement, Bobby Crosby, Ramon Vazquez, Delwyn Young, Garrett Jones, Andrew McCutchen, Brandon Moss. Ross Ohlendorf (5-6 innings/90 pitches) will start, followed by Octavio Dotel (1 inning), Brendan Donnelly (1 inning) and Vinnie Chulk.

— Travel roster for Sunday’s split-squad game against the Phillies: Luke Carlin, Erik Kratz, Ronny Cedeno, Aki Iwamura, Andy LaRoche, Steve Pearce, Ryan Church, Lastings Milledge, John Raynor. D.J. Carrasco 3 innings/50 pitches) will start, followed by Brian Bass (1 inning), Anthony Claggett, Steven Jackson, Javier Lopez and Evan Meek.

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Zach Duke: slugger

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Coach Tony Beasley has been doing batting drills with the pitching staff for the past week or so. Zach Duke is his best pupil.

This afternoon, Duke smacked a pair of doubles, one each off Astros ace Roy Oswalt and closer candidate Brandon Lyon. Pretty good results, considering they was Duke’s first two at-bats in a game this spring.

“I take a lot of pride in possibly helping myself (at the plate),” Duke said.

The Pirates got seven hits, including two by Duke. In the third, Duke got the Pirates’ first hit, a looping double to left off Oswalt.

In the fifth, Duke whipped a pitch from Brandon Lyon into the right field corner. Duke eased into second base — drawing some good-natured boos from fans who wanted to see Duke try for a triple.

“If I go for three and make an out or I (get injured), that’s not where I want to be,” Duke said.

Career batting stats for the Pirates’ starting rotation:

Duke: .188 average, 17 RBI; Ross Ohlendorf: .061 average, 0 RBI; Paul Maholm: .123 average, 12 RBI; Charlie Morton: .104 average, 1 RBI; Daniel McCutchen .091average, 1 RBI.

• Duke was just as effective at the plate as he was on the pitcher’s mound. He worked 6 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing just two hits. The left-hander walked one, struck out two and lowered his ERA to 3.00.

“Not much I can complain about today,” Duke said. “I approached this game more like I would a regular-season game. I knew I was going to be out there for a long time. I tried to get my game plan established and work off that. It went really well. I was able to execute everything I wanted to.”

Duke was slated to work six innings, but he was efficient enough to start the seventh in order to boost his pitch count.

“Everything was working,” manager John Russell said. “He was down (in the zone), his offspeed pitches were working. When he’s like that, he’s very efficient.”

After giving up T.J. Steele’s broken-bat, infield single in the third inning, Duke retired 12 straight. His day ended with Geoff Blum’s two-out single in the seventh.

• Closer Octavio Dotel retired all five batters he faced today in a game against the New York Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate at Pirate City. Dotel got three strikeouts, threw 21 pitches and hit 93 mph with his fastball. It was the right-hander’s fourth outing since coming back from an oblique injury.

• Fox Sports Pittsburgh will televise 156 regular-season Pirates games this season. That’s the most ever by the network.

• The Pirates will play two split-squad games Sunday. Ross Ohlendorf will start against the Rays. D.J. Carrasco will start against the Phillies. Carrasco is a shoo-in for a bullpen job, but the Pirates want to keep him semi-stretched out in case he’s needed as a long reliever or even spot starter.

• Before today’s game, Brandon Moss, Jack Taschner, John Russell, coach Luis Dorante and Neal Huntington filmed a segment for the Pentagon Channel. It will be part of a video salute to American troops abroad. Taschner’s brother-in-law served in Iraq as an Army Ranger.

• The annual Bradenton PirateFest will be held from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday on 9th Street outside McKechnie Field.

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Game 21: Kissimmee-bound

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Anthony Claggett, Jack Taschner and Javier Lopez will pitch in relief roles today against the Astros. Claggett is ticketed for Triple-A, Lopez is a lock for the Pirates’ bullpen. Taschner, who has racked up 12 strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings, also is near-certain to head north with the team next week.

Ramon Vazquez gets the start at third base. Despite being the sixth-highest paid Pirate ($2 million), his chances of making the team are practically nil. With little trade value, he’ll most likely be released at the end of next week. Until then, the Pirates will hang onto him as insurance against a devastating injury to Bobby Crosby, Ronny Cedeno or another infielder. It’s a tough break for Vazquez, who’d face a tougher road latching on with another team as a free agent.

It was a looooong, boring drive here from Bradenton, and the Pirates arrived to discover a muddy field after last night’s drenching thunderstorms. But the skies already are clearing and the temp is supposed to reach the upper 70s.

Lineups for this afternoon’s game:

Pirates: 1. John Raynor cf, 2. Delwyn Young 2b, 3. Lastings Milledge lf, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Jeff Clement 1b, 6. Bobby Crosby ss, 7. Ramon Vazquez 3b, 8. Jason Jaramillo c, 9. Zach Duke lhp.

Astros: 1. T.J. Steele cf, 2. Jeff Keppinger 2b, 3. Jason Michaels rf, 4. Carlos Lee lf, 5. Geoff Blum 1b, 6. Pedro Feliz 3b, 7. Edwin Maysonet ss, 8. Humberto Quintero c, 9. Roy Oswalt rhp

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Iwamura loses Shikoku battle

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Aki Iwamura went 0 for 3, including a strikeout, today against Braves right-hander Kenshin Kawakami. It was the first time they had faced each other in the major leagues.

“I won the Shikoku competition,” Kawakami said.

Iwamura and Kawakami both come from Shikoku Island of Japan, southwest of Tokyo. They played against each other in the Japanese Central League before coming to America.

– Charlie Morton was not dismayed after allowing five runs on eight hits in five innings against the Braves.

“I guess it was pitch selection,” Morton said. “For the most part, I was throwing strikes with all my pitches. I bounced a lot of curveballs, but other than that I was in the zone.”

Morton threw a lot of sliders, a pitch he took out of his arsenal last year. “I’m still re-learning it, basically,” he said.

Manager John Russell gave Morton some props.

“He was good,” Russell said. “A couple of wind-blown balls hurt him. He’s working on his changeup and he threw some good ones to Nate (McLouth). His slider was very good and he was very explosive with his fastball. The curveball took a few innings to get going. He did a good job of continuing to work his curveball and it did get better as the game went on.”

– Delwyn Young played the final three innings at third base. It was his first career appearances at the position.

– McLouth, a Gold Glove winner for the Pirates in 2008, made a great defensive play in the fourth. With a runner at second and one out, he made a fine running catch of Ryan Doumit’s rocket shot to deep center.

In the fifth, Andrew McCutchen, who took over in center for the Pirates after McLouth was traded, also turned in a gem. Yunel Escobar hit a looper and McCutchen made a diving, tumbling catch.

– The Los Angeles Dodgers announced right-hander Vicente Padilla will start the season-opener April 5 against Pirates lefty Zach Duke. Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley will pitch the next two games of the series for the Dodgers.

– Duke (6 innings/85 pitches) will start tomorrow against the Astros in Kissimmee. Jeff Karstens, Jack Taschner and Javier Lopez also will pitch.

– Position players who will not make the trip to Kissimmee: Doumit, Ronny Cedeno, Iwamura, Andy LaRoche, Ryan Church (fractured fingertip) and McCutchen.

– Daniel McCutchen (5-6 innings/85 pitches) will start Saturday vs. the Blue Jays: Evan Meek, Brendan Donnelly, Jeremy Powell and Jeff Karstens also are scheduled to pitch.

– Joel Hanrahan (elbow) will throw one inning/20 pitches Friday in a minor league game at Pirate City.

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Church has fractured finger

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BRADENTON, Fla. – Ryan Church fractured the tip of his left middle finger, but hopes to be able to get back in the lineup by Sunday.

Church sustained the injury Saturday during the game against the Orioles. Church was not playing in the game, but tried to catch a foul ball hit by Andrew McCutchen. Church’s finger was sandwiched between the ball and concrete.

Today was the first time Church was able to swing and play catch without problem. The Pirates are slated to play split-squad games Sunday on the road against the Phillies and Rays.

– Reliever Vinnie Chulk has not pitched in a game in a week due to a sore bicep. “It’s nothing big,” Chulk said, adding that he will pitch Sunday in one of the split squad games.

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Long’s help sparks Raynor’s success

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BRADENTON, Fla. — John Raynor is batting .313 through 14 games this spring. Part of the reason for his success is work he’s done with hitting coach Don Long.

In minicamp, Long helped Raynor stay balanced. During spring training, Raynor has focused on keeping his hands back. “I had the barrel wrapped around the back of my head a little bit,” Raynor said. “It feels like it’s lying flat, but it’s really getting it more straight up. That allows me to be more direct to the ball. It’s been great. I didn’t realize the bad habits I’d gotten into. It’s been a world of difference.”

The changes have not been dramatic, but they have made a big difference. “I’ve always had the right mental process, as far as attacking the ball,” Raynor said. “It’s just all in my setup and my hands. This allows the way I attack the ball to happen more freely.”

The issue with balance didn’t mean Raynor was falling over at the plate. What was happening was, his body — and especially his head — was moving forward as the pitcher was getting ready to deliver, then Raynor’s head would slide back and forth when he kicked up his leg as the ball came to the plate.

“When you have a leg tuck, you can get in trouble with your head moving too much in both directions,” Raynor said. “Now, it’s about keeping my head still, trying to stay in a little box instead of a big one.”

Raynor picked up the leg tuck after he was drafted by the Marlins in 2006.

“That’s my natural timing,” Raynor said. “I had never done it until I got into pro ball. The Marlins put that into my swing and I took off with it. It’s natural for me know. I picked up on it quick, so it was something that was natural to my swing.”

Lineups for this afternoon’s game:

Braves – 1. Nate McLouth cf, 2. Yunel Escobar ss, 3. Jason Heyward rf, 4. Matt Diaz lf, 5. Eric Hinske 1b, 6. Omar Infante 2b, 7. David Ross c, 8. Brooks Conrad 3b, 9. Kenshin Kawakami rhp.

Pirates – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Aki Iwamura 2b, 3. Andy LaRoche 3b, 4. Ryan Doumit c, 5. Jeff Clement 1b, 6. Steve Pearce rf, 7. Ronny Cedeno ss, 8. Brandon Moss lf, 9. Charlie Morton rhp

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Young will give third base a try

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BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates are trying to add another position to Delwyn Young’s resume.

Young has been working out at third base. Manager John Russell hopes to give Young some playing time there before spring training ends. “As soon as Carlos (Garcia, infield coach) thinks he’s game-ready, we’ll get him out there,” Russell said.

Young said there’s no timetable for his third base debut, but he doesn’t seem fazed by the new role. “A ground ball is a ground ball,” Young said. “Just a little bit different view of the field, that’s it.”

Young has been doing early-morning drills with Garcia at McKechnie Field. He also has been quizzing Andy LaRoche about reading grounders, positioning and other details of playing the hot corner.

“It’s more reaction plays, from what Andy’s been telling me,” Young said. “I haven’t been over there in a game, so we’ll see.”

– Going into spring training, the Pirates said they planned to use LaRoche at least a bit at second base. However, LaRoche has not worked out there since the first week of camp and Russell said there are no plans to give LaRoche any playing time at second in Grapefruit League games.

– Octavio Dotel, who’s been out with a strained oblique, tossed on scoreless inning in his spring debut. His line against five batters included one walk, a hit batter, a wild pitch and a strikeout. Dotel threw 22 pitches, 10 for strikes.

“I’m happy I got that one out of my way,” Dotel said. “I was a little wild. Maybe I was too excited, maybe too happy. I just hope the next one will be better.”

Dotel said he is not feeling any lingering pain. “Perfecto! Everything feels good,” he said. “(Warming up) in the bullpen, I don’t feel anything. In the game, I don’t feel anything.”

Russell and Dotel reiterated that he will be ready for Opening Day.

– Paul Maholm worked five innings and allowed five runs on five hits. Victor Martinez, Bill Hall and Mike Cameron each homered. “Obviously, the home runs weren’t the bright spot of my day,” Maholm said. “But it’s part of the process of spring training.”

– Bobby Crosby started at first base against the Red Sox.

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Familiar foe for Maholm

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BRADENTON, Fla. — If it’s the Red Sox in the opposing team’s dugout, it must also be Paul Maholm on the mound for the Pirates.

Maholm has made four starts this spring, two against the BoSox and two against the Yankees. Boston comes to McKechnie Field this afternoon, and Maholm will make his fifth start.

The Red Sox will use a designated hitter today. The Pirates will play by National League rules and let Maholm take some hacks.

Lineups for today’s game:

Red Sox – 1. Jacoby Ellsbury lf, 2. Mike Cameron cf, 3. Victor Martinez c, 4. Mike Lowell 1b, 5. Jeremy Hermida dh, 6. Bill Hall ss, 7. Tug Hulett 2b, 8. Josh Reddick rf, 9. Jorge Jimenez 3b. Josh Beckett p

Pirates – 1. Aki Iwamura 2b, 2. Ronny Cedeno ss, 3. Lastings Milledge lf, 4, Garrett Jones rf, 5. Bobby Crosby 1b, 6. Ramon Vazquez 3b, 7. John Raynor cf, 8. Jason Jaramillo c, 9. Maholm p

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Duke will start Opening Day

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BRADENTON, Fla. – Left-hander Zach Duke will start for the Pirates on Opening Day. The Pirates will play the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 5 at 1:35 p.m.

Manager John Russell chose Duke over lefty Paul Maholm and right-hander Ross Ohlendorf.

“Realistically, you could’ve picked any one of the three,” Russell said. “They all did something last year to deserve it. Ross had a great finish. Zach made the All-Star team. Paul is your consistent, steady starter. It’s not like it’s an accolade for any one guy. We feel like this balances our rotation. The way we wanted to set our rotation, (the Opener) just fell on Zach’s day”

The rotation will be Duke, Ohlendorf, Maholm, Charlie Morton and rookie right-hander Daniel McCutchen.

– In his worst outing of the spring, right-hander Ohlendorf yielded seven runs (four earned) today in an 11-1 loss against the Houston Astros. Ohlendorf threw 77 pitches in 3 2/3 innings and gave up nine hits, walked three and struck out one. “I was in bad counts a lot,” Ohlendorf said. “I wasn’t commanding the fastball like I needed to.”

– Jeff Clement drove in the Pirates’ run with a two-out single in the first inning. Clement, a converted catcher, also made his first error in 12 games at first base. T.J. Steele reached when a throw from third baseman Andy LaRoche short-hopped Clement and got past him.

– In the third inning, Garrett Jones made an excellent play in deep right field. Edwin Maysonet hit a screamer with the wind toward the right field corner, but Jones tracked it down for a running catch. “That wind was really blowing,” Jones said, grinning.

– LaRoche turned in the game’s defensive gem. He snatched a bunt by Felipe Paulino and made a perfect, running throw across his body to nail Drew Locke at second base.

– Chris Jakubauskas likely will be in the starting rotation at Indy. That could change if he doesn’t regain some fastball velocity, which was lower than expected this spring. “

– Joel Hanrahan (elbow) and Ledezma (shoulder) will throw one inning today at Pirate City.

We didn’t see the same arm strength as what we saw with him (last year) in Seattle,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “It’s only a couple miles an hour, but it’s made a difference for Chris.”

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Neil Walker sent to Triple-A

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Neil Walker saw it coming.

This morning, Walker was optioned to Triple-A, one of eight players sent out of Pirates spring training camp. He’ll begin the season at Indianapolis for the third year in a row.

“I kinda knew they weren’t going to put me in the fire, as far as trying to play those new positions in the big leagues,” Walker said.

Drafted as a catcher, then converted to a third baseman in 2007, Walker expects to play mostly first base and the corner outfield spots at Indy.

“I know they want Pedro (Alvarez) to play every day at third base,” Walker said. “For me, it’s going to be a moving around type thing. I’ll play first base and left and right field. There’s really no top priority (position).”

Lineups for today’s game:

Astros – 1. T.J. Steele cf, 2. Kazuo Matsui 2b, 3. Jason Michaels lf, 4. Pedro Feliz 3b, 5. Chris Shelton 1b, 6. Edwin Maysonet ss, 7. Humberto Quintero c, 8. Drew Locke rf, 9. Felipe Paulino rhp

Pirates – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Aki Iwamura 2b, 3. Garrett Jones rf, 4. Ryan Doumit c, 5. Jeff Clement 1b, 6. Lastings Milledge lf, 7. Ronny Cedeno ss, 8. Andrew LaRoche 3b, 9. Ross Ohlendorf rhp

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