Popups, Alvarez, Olsen, Nutting

Where's the ball? The wind is carrying it somewhere ...

Where's the ball? The wind is carrying it somewhere ...

BRADENTON, Fla. — Today was by far the breeziest day at Pirate City since training camp opened. What a perfect time to hold popup drills for catchers.

“We did not look at the weather forecast first,” manager Clint Hurdle said, laughing. “It’s just good karma. If you’re gonna find ways to improve, you’re always looking for ways to heighten the tension in practice. The wind showed up for us today, which heightens everybody’s tension in a fly ball priority situation.”

The catchers’ workouts were held in the right field corner on Field 2, under blue skies with scattered clouds. The drills started simply — a pitching machine fired a ball high into the air — but quickly ramped up in difficulty. By the end, coach Tom Prince was shooting up three balls in short succession for each catcher.

In the three-at-a-time drill, 20 of 21 balls were caught. The only drop was by Wyatt Toregas, who got turned around on the final ball of the day.

“Have you ever seen seven catchers this good before on the first day with popups?” Prince said, smiling.

“They looked real good,” agreed Manny Sanguillen.

For those of you who are my Facebook friends, I posted two videos of the workouts on my page.

»»» Hurdle said the intensity and degree of difficulty during all phases of daily practice will remain high. “That’s one of the elements we’re really trying to challenge the players with this spring — if you want to play in the game, you’ve got to work at practice,” Hurdle said. “Sometimes, it’s done the other way. I’ve been guilty of it. What we’ve tried to do is make practice more challenging.”

Ryan Doumit shows some love for the fans at Field 1

Ryan Doumit shows some love for the fans at Field 1

»»» Catcher Ryan Doumit had an outstanding day on defense. He snagged every ball in the popup drill, even a few real toughies when the machine was cranked up all the way.

Earlier in the day, during a relay throw drill, Doumit made a nice sliding stop to get an errant throw halfway up the third base line. The crowd of fans behind the backstop applauded and Doumit stood and tipped his cap.

»»» Third baseman Pedro Alvarez sat out today;s workouts due to neck spasms. “I started feeling it after practice (Sunday),” said Alvarez, who’s listed as day to day. During fielding drills, Garrett Atkins worked at third base with the starters.

»»» Left-hander Scott Olsen (strained left hamstring) threw long toss from 60 feet. There is no timetable for when he’ll get back on the mound and start competing for the No. 5 starter job. “No need to rush it at this point and risk a more serious injury,” Olsen said.

»»» Most everyone walked around this morning with cotton balls taped to the inside of their elbows. It was blood work day.

»»» Owner Bob Nutting talked to the players for about 20 minutes this morning in a closed-door meeting. He said the message was the higher level of expectations this year.

“It’s critically important that they understand that 2011 is not going to be a year where small bits of incremental progress are adequate,” Nutting said. “Until we win a National League championship, we’re not going to be satisfied with incremental progress.”

Nutting made it clear last year’s 57-105 record was unacceptable, but did not quantify what progress means for this year.

“Whether it’s (winning) five more games or 20 more games, I don’t think a number is critical,” he said. “What’s important is we have a clear goal and we remain focused (on it).”

The rewards for making progress are obvious: longer contracts, bigger salaries and such. But Nutting did not specify what the ramifications will be — for the front office as well as the players and coaches — if progress is not made.

“It’s not the right time to start speculating on what if we fail,” Nutting said. “I saw the story about (general manager Neal Huntington’s) contract terms. That’s not productive. That’s not the right use of energy. That’s not the right place for us to focus as an organization.”

Huntington’s contract is up after this season and so far no extension has been offered. Saturday, president Frank Coonelly said Huntington’s status will be evaluated during the year.