A lot changes in five days

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HOUSTON — Geez! I go away on a quick, five-day vacation and when I return … the Pirates have a whole new catching combo, Evan Meek is out of action for who knows how long, Jose Ascanio is still a Bucco (sort of) and Penn State-Pitt is back.
First off, the big news: PSU nets a couple gimmie games in 2016 and ’17. Nice! I know this will be billed as the return of a “rivalry” and all, but it’s front-page news only in Western Pa. and a few other spots around the state. Nationally, it’s no big deal — certainly not on par with Alabama-Auburn or Michigan-Ohio State. Penn State and Pitt had some great games in the 1970s and ’80s, but that’s really about it. There’s no question (or is there) that JoePa will no longer be coaching the Nits when the teams meet in 2016. But how many more head coaching changes will Pitt have gone through by then?

»»» OK, back to baseball. Ascanio today cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A Indianapolis. Show of hands, who’s surprised? Um, no one? Me neither.

»»» Lefty reliever Joe Beimel (elbow) threw a 20-pitch bullpen today, all fastballs. It was his first time throwing off a mound since he went on the DL.

»»» Infielder Josh Harrison will test his sore right oblique by running and throwing during batting practice. He’s still not cleared to swing a bat.

»»» Five college players who were drafted last week — outfielder Taylor Lewis (10th round, Maine), right-hander Matt Benedict (30th round, Western Carolina), catcher Derek Trent (31st, East Tennessee State) and infielders Brian Sharp (24th, California Baptist) and Kirk singer (29th, Long Beach State) have signed contracts. They all were assigned to short-season State College.

»»» Jameson Taillon has had two of his first nine starts at Low-A West Virginia suspended due to lousy weather.

»»» The Astros, whose 4.69 team ERA is the second-worst in the majors, today fired pitching coach Brad Arnsberg. Doug Brocail is the interim pitching coach.

Lineups for tonight’s game:
Pirates (32-33) — 1. Jose Tabata lf, 2. Ronny Cedeno ss, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Neil Walker 2b, 5. Garrett Jones rf, 6. Lyle Overbay 1b, 6. Mike McKenry, 7. Brandon Wood 3b, 8. , 9. Jeff Karstens rhp (3-4, 2.94)
Astros (25-42) — 1. Michael Bourn cf, 2. Clint Barmes ss, 3. Hunter Pence rf, 4. Carlos Lee lf, 5. Jeff Keppinger 2b, 6. Brett Wallace 1b, 7. Chris Johnson 3b, 8. Carlos Corporan c, 9. Bud Norris rhp (4-4, 3.67)AAlogo1

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Pre-game: Harrison, McCutchen out, McKenry in

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Josh Harrison will sit out for a second straight game tonight with a tight right oblique muscle, but said he felt a lot better today than he did on Sunday.

He is still unavailable for tonight’s wrap-up against the Mets, and as far as Harrison knew was not going to be allowed to swing the bat again today.

Manager Clint Hurdle said they plan to get him on the field on Wednesday, and they should know at that time whether he’s close or if they’ll have to explore putting him on the disabled list.

If he does go on the DL, Hurdle said that Chase d’Arnaud is one of the players they’ve discussed bringing up from Triple-A.

Decimating the offense even more, Andrew McCutchen won’t play tonight, either. Hurdle gave him the day off, despite McCutchen leading all National League player in hits in 11 games in June, going 20 for 41 with five doubles, a home run, 10 RBI and nine runs scored. He’s also on a career-best 11-game hitting streak, the longest by a Pirates player this year.

Hurdle’s well aware of how well McCutchen’s hitting, and even added that he’s 6 for 12 lifetime against Mets starter Mike Pelfrey (along with two walks and no strikeouts). Here’s his explanation for the game off:
“It’s a day off we talked about for a while. He’s sitting at 62 games and he’s red-lining a little bit. The guys were laughing, they think it’s a guaranteed win because both games he sat we won. … One thing we’ve tried to do is find time for guys. After yesterday’s game he knew (he’d be off). (With the day game on Sunday) it’s an opportunity to take advantage of a larger window of down time.”

McCutchen will be available for pinch-hitting duty, and new catcher Michael McKenry will make his Pirates debut tonight.

Here are the lineups:
Pirates — Tabata 7, Paul 8, Walker 4, Jones 9, Overbay 3, Wood 5, McKenry 2, Cedeno 6, Maholm 1

Mets — Reyes 6, Turner 5, Beltran 9, Pagan 8, Bay 7, Paulino 2, Murphy 3, Tejada 4, Pelfrey 1

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Pre-game: Harrison out with oblique injury

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Josh Harrison’s six-game hitting streak is on hold with the third baseman out of the lineup today with minor tightness in his right oblique.

Harrison said it happened in the seventh inning of Saturday night’s game.

“The infield single I hit, the throw was off-line a little bit and I just jerked away to avoid the tag and felt a little something,” he said. “But it should be fine, just taking some precautions and getting some treatment on it today.”

Harrison said he’s been specifically told not to swing the bat or throw today. He admits it’s frustrating, given the success he’s had since joining the Pirates in New York two weeks ago, but doesn’t believe he’ll be out long.

Harrison is hitting .300 in 10 games with the Pirates, and has hit safely in nine of his 10 starts.

Here are today’s lineups:
For the Pirates: Tabata 7, Diaz 9, McCutchen 8, Walker 4, Overbay 3, Wood 5, Cedeno 6, Brown 2, Correia 1

For the Mets: Reyes 6, Turner 5, Beltran 9, Murphy 3, Pagan 8, Bay 7, Thole 2, Tejada 4, Capuano 1

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Post-game: Toregas ‘showed up as big as anybody’

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Manager Clint Hurdle talked before Saturday’s game about how the Pirates are shopping for a catcher but the asking price has been too high. With Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder both out for an extended time, the Pirates don’t exactly have the upper hand in negotiations.

But Wyatt Toregas showed he’s at least capable of getting the job done in his first start behind the plate for the Pirates tonight, including a play to throw out Jose Reyes trying to steal second in the first inning.

“At the end of the day, Wyatt showed up as big as anybody tonight,” Hurdle said. “He handled the pitches, made a big block in the eighth inning, breaking ball down in the dirt and he’s right in front. Throwing Reyes out in the first had to help his confidence. I gave him one more pat on the butt going out there and said, ‘C’mon, you’re six, playing in the backyard. Go have some fun,’ and that’s what he looked like out there.”

Here’s what closer Joel Hanrahan had to say about Toregas: “He’s worked with some of the guys before, but I don’t even remember throwing to him in spring training. I always heard he was a pretty good receiver back there and he came in and did a heck of a job. If he can keep doing that it will be a good sign for us.”

Signed as a minor-league free agent in December 2010, Toregas came to spring training as a non-roster invitee. He started the 2010 season as a member of Cleveland’s 40-man roster but was designated for assignment on April 3.

Toregas was 0 for 3 at the plate tonight after grounding into a game-ending double-play as a pinch hitter in his Pirates debut on Friday night. Before his call-up to the Pirates, he had played 19 games in the majors and 536 in the minors, where he was a .262 batter.

= The Pirates also got a strong seventh from another newcomer, Tim Wood, who retired all three batters he faced in his debut on Friday, then gave up just one hit tonight.

Here’s the manager’s take on Wood: “The first three batters in the lineup were on base six times in this game so (starter James McDonald) was done. He wasn’t going to face the top of the lineup again, and to throw Wood in there, I felt confident. I like his stuff. He’s down in the zone, he’s got a swing-and-miss slider, did a nice job.”

Wood said before the game that in the offseason, he was between signing with the Pirates and the Washington Nationals. He chose the Nationals, with the promise that he could compete for a job with the team, then was sent to minor league camp earlier than he thought he would be.

At that point Wood thought he’d have a Triple-A job, but when the Nationals told him all they had for him was in Double-A, he asked for and was granted his release, then signed with the Pirates. A long-standing relationship with Pirates assistant pitching coordinator Scott Mitchell, dating back to when they were both with the Florida Marlins, had a lot to do with that.

“At one point it was three teams in five months,” Wood said. “The journey this game can take you on, the ups and downs, but I’m just thankful for the opportunity the Pirates gave me. It’s a good organization; there’s a lot of opportunity here.”

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Postgame: McCutchen’s great escape

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The Diamondbacks seemed poised to win tonight’s game in the 11th inning. Reliever Daniel McCutchen gave up a leadoff double to Xavier Nady. Henry Blanco showed bunt, then slapped a single to right, moving Nady to third.
“I had a little magic up my sleeve,” McCutchen said with a wink.
On a 2-2 count, Ryan Roberts went down chasing a slider that was well out of the zone. “I was going for a ball there,” McCutchen said. “If he’d have laid off it, then I’d have to see what I’d do 3-2. But I threw a good one in there.”
That brought up Kelly Johnson — a lefty hitter who had not grounded into a double play in 40 opportunities this season. Johnson smacked a sharp grounder to first baseman Lyle Overbay, who started a 3-6-3 inning-ender.
“Sometimes, you just get a little lucky,” McCutchen said.

»»» There was no update after the game on the condition of catcher Chris Snyder, who left the game in the second inning with a sore lower back. The Pirates, once thought to have a surplus of catchers, now are extremely shorthanded. Ryan Doumit (fractured ankle) already is on the DL and Jason Jaramillo is rehabbing in Bradenton, Fla., from an elbow injury. Dusty Brown was called up to replace Doumit. Neither catcher at Triple-A Indianapolis — Wyatt Toregas and Eric Fryer — is ready for a heavy-duty role prime time.
Remember, a lower back injury cost Snyder most of spring training and put him on the DL when the season began. If Snyder is going to be out again for a while, the Pirates might put in a waiver claim for Jake Fox, whom the Baltimore Orioles designated for assignment last week. However, any waiver claim likely won’t be awarded until Friday afternoon.
The Pirates no longer are atop the heap for making a claim. After the 31st day of the season, waiver claims are awarded in reverse order of teams’ records.

»»» Righty Brad Lincoln was scratched from his scheduled start tonight for Indy due to a sore neck. Lefty Garrett Olsen started instead and combined with three relievers to toss Indy’s first shutout of the season, a 1-0 victory against Buffalo. Fryer helped keep the game close by throwing out two would-be base-stealers.

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Pregame: Watson called up

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One of my press box mates wryly observed, “Clint Hurdle 1, Neal Huntington 0,” when the Pirates announced their roster move this afternoon. Righty reliever Jose Ascanio was designated for assignment and lefty reliever Tony Watson was recalled from Triple-A Indy.

Hurdle made it clear in the offseason that he wanted two left-handers in the bullpen, but has been forced to get by with one for most of the year. That’s not a huge issue if the one lefty is Joe Beimel, but the veteran is on the DL with a sore elbow. With Beimel out, the lone lefty instead has been rookie Daniel Moskos and Hurdle was uncomfortable with the setup.

Ascanio has been a disappointment since they Pirates got him in the John Grabow trade in 2009. Sidelined by injuries, he came into this season having pitched in just two five games — at any level — since the trade.

»»» The Pirates made an intriguing move with their second-round draft pick, taking high schooler Josh Bell. A Scott Boras client, Bell told teams before the draft he was intent on playing at the University of Texas. The Red Sox and Tigers had mulled drafting Bell in the first round — some scouts consider him the best high school bat in the draft — but may have been scared off. If the Pirates are unable to sign Bell, they’ll get a second-round compensatory pick next year. If Bell goes to college, he’ll likely be a top-five pick in 2013, when he’s eligible to re-enter the draft.

»»» Neil Walker is getting a day off, so Andrew McCutchen tonight will bat cleanup for the first time in his career. Since the start of last season, McCutchen ranks first among NL centerfielders with a .366 OBP.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Diamondbacks (33-27) – 1. Ryan Roberts 3b, 2. Kelly Johnson 2b, 3. Justin Upton rf, 4. Stephen Drew ss, 5. Chris Young cf, 6. Miguel Montero c, 7. Juan Miranda 1b, 8. Gerrado Parra lf, 9. Daniel Hudson rhp (6-5, 4.22)

Pirates (28-30) – 1. Jose Tabata lf, 2. Josh Harrison 2b, 3. Xavier Paul rf, 4. Andrew McCutchen cf, 5. Lyle Overbay 1b, 6. Chris Snyder c, 7. Brandon Wood 3b, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Kevin Correia rhp (8-4, 3.40)

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In-game: Resop v. Howard

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What an epic confrontation between Chris Resop and Ryan Howard in the fifth inning today. With the bases loaded and one out, Howard battled through 13 pitches — fouling off five after the count went full — and launched a sacrifice fly that Andrew McCutchen caught a couple of steps in front of the North Side Notch.

resopIt wasn’t the first time Resop had to work overtime to get an out. On April 26, Resop had an 11-pitch battle with Mike Fontenot of the Giants. Fontenot fouled off four balls with a 3-2 count, then struck out swinging at a 94-mph fastball.

A while ago, I asked Resop if he — or any pitcher, for that mater — gets edgy during one of those long at-bats. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “And it doesn’t even have to be a strikeout (that you want). It’s, ‘Just put the ball in play. Do something.’ ”

For a reliever, a single long at-bat usually means a short outing. “I don’t like throwing more than 15 pitches in any inning,” Resop said. “You’re trying to keep your pitch count down. If you’re hoping to get through two innings that day, having a 12- or 14-pitch at-bat can kill your chances of staying in the game. If you throw eight or nine pitches to two other guys, say you give up a base hit, now you’re at 30 pitches.”

Against Howard, Resop threw one curve (which Howard took for ball two) and 12 four-seam fastballs. It’s Resop’s policy, as it is with most relievers, to stay with his best pitch.

“It’s different with starters. They’ve got more pitches to choose from,” Resop said. “Coming in later in the game, if you’re going right at guys you’re not going to pick at (the corners). If there are guys on base, you definitely didn’t want to put (the hitter) on. If you’ve got an open base and he’s fouling stuff off, you might want to just throw a breaking ball up there and if it’s a ball, OK, get the next guy.”

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Pregame: Big crowds

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A lot of folks assume the largest crowd at PNC Park came for one of the interleague games against the Yankees in 2008. Not so. Prior to last night, the biggest crowd was a turnout of 39,392 on Aug. 11, 2001, to see an 11-6 loss against the Padres.

That record was smashed Saturday, when 39,441 witnessed a dramatic, 6-3 win against the Phillies. Many in the crowd — 50 percent or more, according to some estimates — were rooting for the bad guys. It didn’t matter; in fact, it only added to the atmosphere.

“It’s a good matchup,” skipper Clint Hurdle said. “The matchup has some history. The Philly fans made the trip. I do believe we’re getting some incremental traction with our fan base. We’re playing better. We have a long way to go. Hopefully, it’s playing out and they’re seeing it’s a fun club to watch. We have the ability to break your heart one night and then make you jump up and down the next.”

»»» By the way, there are three Yanks games among the top 10 draws at PNC Park. The biggest, 39,081 for the game July 10, 2008, ranks fourth. There also are two games from PNC Park’s inaugural 2001 season on the list.

Lineups for this afternoon’s game:

Phillies (34-24) – 1. Shane Victorino cf, 2. Placido Polanco 3b, 3. Chase Utley 2b, 4. Ryan Howard 1b, 5. Raul Ibanez lf, 6. Carlos Ruiz c, 7. Domonic Brown rf, 8. Wilson Valdez ss c, 9. Roy Halladay rhp (7-3, 2.56)

Pirates (28-29) – 1. Xavier Paul lf, 2. Josh Harrison 3b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Neil Walker 2b, 5. Lyle Overbay 1b, 6. Garrett Jones rf, 7. Brandon Wood ss, 8. Dusty Brown c, 9. James McDonald rhp (3-3, 4.85)

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