Pregame: Business as usual

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green_weenieHOUSTON — It might surprise you to know that the Pirates were NOT huddled around the flat-screen TV last night in their clubhouse, anxiously waiting to hear if the Rockies had bumped off the Brewers to rearrange the NL Central standings.

There was some whooping when MLB Network showed highlights of the Reds’ walkoff win against the Cards. But by the time the Rox nailed down their win, some of the Pirates had showered and were on their way back to the hotel. A handful were gathered in the cafeteria and were watching highlights on the TV there.

The Pirates greeted their first minutes as the division co-leader (they’re tied with the Cards, but technically they are a few percentage points ahead) with a business-like approach. “We’re keeping things where they need to be,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “You’ve heard it since Opening Day, we just need to play our game. We need to continue to prepare and focus the way we are, and we’ll see where it takes us. We’ve got a long ride in front of us.”

»»» I’m guessing everyone’s favorite non-Pirates player today is Brandon Phillips. He certainly was popular last night in the clubhouse.

»»» Jeff Karstens now ranks third in the NL with a 2.34 ERA. He’s averaging 14.01 pitches per inning, the second-lowest rate in the majors (Rays righty James Shields averages 13.96).

»»» Andrew McCutchen has 15 RBI this month, which is tied with Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre for tops in the majors. McCutchen also is tied with Beltre, Mark Ellis and Pablo Sandoval with 10 extra-base hits in July. “Cutch is swinging the bat maybe as well as he ever has,” Hurdle said. “He’s in such a good place right now at the plate. He’s seeing the ball good, he’s getting good looks, he’s hitting the ball hard where it’s pitched.”

»»» Catcher Jason Jaramillo (elbow) is on a rehab assingment with Bradenton of the rookie level Gulf Coast League. He’s played in six games and is 5 for 23. More importantly, JJ has been able to get back behind the plate. As soon as Jaramillo is game-ready, expect him to replace Eric Fryer on the Pirates’ active roster.

»»» Outfielder Jose Hernandez, a 23rd-round pick in 2009, released from Double-A Altoona. He was replaced by infielder Yunesky Sanchez.

»»» Remember pitcher Wardell Starling? A draft-and-follow pick as a fourth-rounder in 2002, Starling made it as high as Double-A Altoona in 2006 and ’07. He’s bounced around independent leagues since then, and this week signed with the Bridegeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League.

Lineups for today’s game:

Pirates (48-43) – 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Chase d’Arnaud ss, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Andrew McCutchen cf, 5. Garrett Jones rf, 6. Lyle Overbay 1b, 7. Brandon Wood 3b, 8. Mike McKenry c, 9. Paul Maholm lhp (6-9, 2.96)

Astros (30-63) – 1. Michael Bourn cf, 2. Angel Sanchez 3b, 3. Jeff Keppinger 2b, 4. Hunter Pence rf, 5. Carlos Lee lf, 6. Jason Michaels lf, 7. Clint Barmes ss, 8. Humberto Quintero c, 9. Bud Norris rhp (5-6, 3.46)

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Pregame: Plotting the pitching

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Just like in this photo from 2009, Steve Pearce is wearing his socks high again.
Just like in this photo from 2009, Steve Pearce is wearing his socks high again.

HOUSTON — A week ago, I wrote about how each of the five starters are on pace to crack career highs in innings pitched this season. How well skipper Clint Hurdle handles the rotation — using spot starters to give guys a blow, keeping an eye on pitch counts in games, managing the bullpen — could have a lot to say about where the Pirates finish this season.

That being said, GM Neal Huntington doesn’t want to create the impression there’s a need to panic about the starters running out of gas down the stretch. “We’re defnintely aware of it, but it’s not like we’ve got five 22-year-olds who are reaching innings thresholds they’ve never reached before,” Huntington said. “Part of the strategy of the rotation coming out of the All-Star break is giving some guys some extra rest. Paul Maholm wants to stay on that fifth day and he’s pitched effectively. Do you give (Kevin) Correia, Charlie (Morton) and James (McDonald) extra rest? As we go through off days, do we skip a guy’s start? Do we look to get him out after 90-95 pitches? Do we do something different on the side or with his throwing program? We’re very cognizant of it. But unlike in the past, when we’ve had guys get to innings thresholds they’ve never been to before, or they’re younger and still developing, it’s not a driving factor.”

»»» A few minutes ago, lefty Joe Beimel was activated off the disabled list. Daniel Moskos was sent back to Triple-A Indy last night to create room on the active roster.

»»» Indy broadcaster Scott McCauley writes today in his blog that Steve Pearce, who’s on a rehab stint with the Triple-A club, has a new look, both with his batting stance and his minor league uniform. Pearce homered last night as Indy’s designated hitter.

Lineups for today’s game:

Pirates (47-43) – 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Chase d’Arnaud ss, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Andrew McCutchen cf, 5. Garrett Jones rf, 6. Lyle Overbay 1b, 7. Josh Harrison 3b, 8. Mike McKenry c, 9. Jeff Karstens rhp (7-4, 2.55)

Astros (30-62) – 1. Michael Bourn cf, 2. Matt Downs 3b, 3. Jeff Keppinger 2b, 4. Hunter Pence rf, 5. Carlos Lee lf, 6. Brett Wallace 1b, 7. Clint Barmes ss, 8. Humberto Quintero c, 9. Brett Myers rhp (3-9, 4.88)

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Pregame: Correia an All-Star, too?

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CorreiaRight-hander Kevin Correia brought a packed suitcase to PNC Park this morning and has a plane ticket to Phoenix. All he needs is an official bid to the All-Star Game, and it looks like he’ll get one.

Correia will be added to the National League All-Star roster this afternoon, giving the Pirates three players in the Midseason Classic for the first time since 1990. Correia is expected to replace Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels, who is scheduled to start this afternoon against Atlanta. Pitching today would disqualify Hamels from being able to pitch Tuesday in the All-Star Game, as he would not have adequate rest between outings. Hamels’ spot will be filled by the next-highest pitcher on the players’ ballot, which is Correia. “I’m excited,” Correia said. “It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come around all that often.”

This will be the first All-Star berth for Correia, who’s in his 10th season. He is 11-7 with a 4.01 ERA and is one win off the major league lead for victories.

Correia will join closer Joel Hanrahan, who was chosen via the players’ ballot, and Andrew McCutchen, who last night was named a replacement for injured outfielder Ryan Braun. Twenty-one years ago, the Pirates had three All-Star reps: Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds and Neal Heaton. In 1988, Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke and Bob Walk were named to the NL squad.

»»» Quiz time: Which four players hit their first career homers to give the Pirates the lead in the eighth inning or later? I’ll give you the obvious one: Mike McKenry, who smacked a three-run game-winning Friday. Try to come up with the rest of ‘em before you finish reading the lineups.

»»» If Correia goes to the All-Star Game, manager Clint Hurdle will be forced to adjust the order of his starting rotation for the second half of the season. At the moment, Correia, Paul Maholm and Jeff Karstens (in that order) are slated to start Friday, Saturday and Sunday against the Astros.

»»» Hurdle said Karstens is available to pitch out of the bullpen today, if needed.

»»» Maholm has posted a 2.02 ERA in his first 10 starts this season at PNC Park. He’s been charged with two earned runs or less in five of his past six starts overall.

»»» Reliever Joe Beimel (elbow) will pitch another inning today for Double-A Altoona in his rehab assignment. He is expected to be activated off the disabled list and be active for the first game after the All-Star break. Also, infielder Steve Pearce (strained calf) is set to play today in a Gulf Coast League game.

Lineups for this afternoon’s game:

Cubs (37-54) – 1. Reed Johnson rf, 2. Starlin Castro ss, 3. Aramis Ramirez 3b, 4. Jeff Baker 1b, 5. Geovany Soto c, 6. Marlon Byrd cf, 7. Alfonso Soriano lf, 8. Darwin Barney sb, 9. Ramon Ortiz rhp (0-1, 3.00)

Pirates (46-43) – 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Chase d’Arnaud ss, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Andrew McCutchen cf, 5. Lyle Overbay 1b, 6. Matt Diaz rf, 7. Josh Harrison 3b, 8. Mike McKenry c, 9. Paul Maholm lhp (5-9, 3.08)

»»» Quiz answers: Neil Walker ( two-run homer in eighth inning on June 1, 2010), Kevin Young (two-run homer in eighth on April 9, 1993) and pitcher Jeff Robinson (solo shot in the ninth on Sept. 9, 1987).

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Pregame: Healthy Alvarez sent to Triple-A

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Here’s a bit of a stunner: Pedro Alvarez today was activated from the disabled list and immediately optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis. “Pedro remains a big part of our future, but we believe making this move is the best way to get him back on track offensively and defensively so he can help us win games at the major league level,” GM Neal Huntington said in a statement released via email. More details as soon as I get ‘em …

»»» George Von Benko, a local media figure and a good friend, has published his first book, “Memory Lane,” a compilation of his columns which ran in the Uniontown Herald Standard. Von Benko has covered and commented on sports in this region for more than 40 years. His book includes vignettes about homegrown standouts such as Olympic champion John Woodruff, football All-American Ernie Davis, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack, basketball coach Vivian Stringer and wrestler George Dugan. It’s definitely worth a read by clicking on the publisher’s website.

»»» After beating Washington last Sunday, right-hander Kevin Correia (11-6) had accounted for 25.6 percent of the Pirates’ 43 wins. According to Elias, that was the highest rate in the majors at that point in the season.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Cubs (36-54) – TBA. Ryan Dempster rhp (5-6, 4.99)

Pirates (46-42) – 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Chase d’Arnaud ss, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Andrew McCutchen cf, 5. Lyle Overbay 1b, 6. Garrett Jones rf, 7. Josh Harrison 3b, 8. Mike McKenry c, 9. Kevin Correia rhp (11-6, 3.74)

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Pregame: Lincoln out, Leroux in

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WASHINGTON — Brad Lincoln was sent back to Triple-A Indianapolis and righty reliever Chris Leroux was recalled. “Brad did nothing to disappoint,” manager Clint Hurdle said. The Pirates need bullpen depth more than another starter, which is why Leroux was added. Hurdle indicated management will consider whether Lincoln could be added to the bullpen mix for the second half of the season.

»»» Chase d’Arnaud will get the majority of the starts at shortstop while Ronny Cedeno (concussion) is on the 7-day DL.

»»» The Indy imports almost pulled out a doubleheader sweep last night. But the Pirates, using a lineup comprised mostly of recent callups from Indianapolis, gave up two runs in the eighth inning and lost, 4-3, to the Nats. “It’s on-the-job training,” manager Hurdle said. “They’re getting experience right away, at the highest level. They’re also learning some things every day because it can be a different game up here. The staples of the game remain the same, but the talent level is obviously escalated. The game’s a little quicker up here.”

»»» Lincoln worked six innings and gave up two runs on four hits. He walked three (one intentional) and struck out four. “A very good night for Brad,” Hurdle said. “It felt good,” Lincoln said. “It felt like I attacked everybody with my fastball and was able to get ahead, for the most part. I finished guys with my fastball. I battled out there. That’s what I was brought here to do — pick up my game and hopefully move on.”

»»» Andrew McCutchen hit for the cycle … sort of. It took him both ends of the doubleheader to accomplish it, but it’s still impressive. In the first game, McCutchen doubled and homered. In the second, he tripled, doubled and singled. “he’s very confident,” Hurdle said. “I think he’s growing with his approach mentally moreso than the mechanical part. Sometimes, it’s knowing when to go up and maybe turn the field a little bit more to the right rather than just square up balls to the middle if (pitchers) are soft and staying away, throwing him changeups. You saw him hit some balls (Saturday) to right field, which is impressive, down the right field line and he hit the home run to left-center field. When he starts stroking the ball all around the park, he’s in a pretty good place.”

»»» Short-season State College last night went 7 for 7 in stolen-base attempts. Taylor Lewis swiped two bags.

Lineups for this afternoon’s game:

Pirates (42-41) – 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Chase d’Arnaud ss, 3. Garrett Jones rf, 4. Andrew McCutchen cf, 5. Neil Walker 2b, 6. Lyle Overbay 1b, 6. 7. Brandon Wood 3b, 8. Mike McKenry c, 9. Kevin Correia rhp (10-6, 3.79)

Nationals (42-42) – 1. Roger Bernadina cf, 2. Danny Espinosa 2b, 3. Ryan Zimmerman 3b, 4. Matt Stairs 1b, 5. Jayson Werth rf, 6. Rick Ankiel cf, 7. Wilson Ramos c, 8. Ian Desmond ss. 9. Jason Marquis rhp (7-2, 3.62)

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In-game: Cedeno goes on 7-day DL

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WASHINGTON — Ronny Cedeno got a concussion last night when he was hit in the back of the head while trying to break up a double play in the fourth inning. Cedeno made contact with Nats second baseman Danny Espinosa.

Cedeno was placed on the seven-day disabled list and infielder Pedro Ciriaco was recalled from Triple-A Indy. It’s a tough break for Cedeno, who’s riding a 10-game hitting streak. Although Ciriaco is listed as active today, Chase d’Arnaud started at shortstop today in the first game of a doubleheader against the Nats.

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Pregame: Lincoln on deck, Walker ready

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WASHINGTON — As you probably know by now, righty Brad Lincoln has been called up from Triple-A and will start the second game of today’s doubleheader. The Pirates will have to make a roster move — probably, they’ll send Tim Wood to Indy — between games of the doubleheader to get Lincoln on the roster.

I found out late last night that reliever Chris Leroux also is on his way here from Indy. To get him onto the roster, the Pirates could wait until after the second game tonight, send Lincoln back to Indy and add Leroux.

Leroux went 3-2 with a 3.00 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP in 24 outings. He’s tossed 45 innings, meaning his capable of giving the Pirates some length out of the bullpen.

»»» Neil Walker will start at second base in the first game today. He missed the past two games due to lower back pain.

»»» Jose Tabata (strained quad) had a bat in his hand in the clubhouse this morning, an indication his recovery is going well. He’s been throwing on flat ground but hasn’t yet been cleared to run.

»»» Xavier Paul (hamstring) will NOT have to go on the disabled list. “He’s able to move and he’s pretty much fit for duty,” manager Clint Hurdle said this afternoon. “Is he 100 percent? I don’t think so, but he’s close enough (to play).”

»»» The Pirates signed Columbian outfielder Harold Ramirez, 16, for a $1.05 million bonus. It’s the second-highest bonus the team has paid to an international free agent. Right-hander Luis Heredia got $2.6 million last summer.

»»» Today will be the Pirates’ first doubleheader in Washington since May 19, 1899.

Lineups for today’s first game:

Pirates (41-40) – 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Chase d’Arnaud ss, 3. Garrett Jones rf, 4. Andrew McCutchen cf, 5. Neil Walker 2b, 6. Lyle Overbay 1b, 7. Brandon Wood 3b, 8. Mike McKenry c, 9. James McDonald rhp (5-4, 4.52)

Nationals (41-41) – TBA. 9. Livan Hernandez rhp (5-8, 3.81)

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Pregame: Morton defuses power hitters

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Morton3WASHINGTON — At the riski of jinxing it … Charlie Morton has not allowed a home run in 64 1/3 innings. That’s the longest such streak since Kris Benson kept the ball in the yard for 72 1/3 innings in 2004.

»»» Morton hasn’t pitched in 11 days, a layoff that never was fully explained by management. There was talk that Morton was fatigued and needed time to rest. (Even though he’s said repeatedly he feels fine.) There was talk of fixing his mechanics. (However, Charlie told me yesterday his that “if anything, my mechanics have gotten better since the beginning of the year.”) Whatever the reason, the break gave Morton a chance to regroup mentally and revisit his delivery with roving instructor Jim Benedict — “He was a big part of the adjustments that we made,” Morton said.

If it was soley up to Morton, he would’ve made his last start as scheduled: “I’ve been wanting to pitch ever since I pitched last. It gets a little frustrating.”

»»» Happy Canada Day! (Sorry, still stuck a little bit in Great White North mode. That’s what happens when it takes you TWO HOURS to get through Customs early on Friday morning at Pearson Airport in Toronto.)

»»» At the time of the “rainout” May 17 in Washington, the Pirates were riding a six-game losing streak. Since then, they’ve gone 23-16, the fifth-most wins in the National League. In June, the Pirates gained 4.5 games in the standings and had the best record (16-11) among NL Central clubs.

»»» At Low-A West Virginia, righty Casey Sandler went on the DL with a sore shoulder. Lefty Jhonathan Ramos was moved down from High-A Bradenton to fill in.

Lineups for today’s game:

Pirates (41-39) – 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Chase d’Arnaud 3b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, Matt Diaz rf, 5. Lyle Overbay 1b, 6. Ronny Cedeno ss, 7. Josh Harrison 2b, 8. Mike McKenry c, 9. Charlie Morton rhp (7-4, 3.77)

Nationals (40-41) – TBA. 9. Tom Gorzelanny lhp (2-6, 4.18)

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