Pregame: 161 down, 1 to go

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MILWAUKEE — Only 190 days until Opening Day 2012 at PNC Park.

»»» Alex Presley is not in the lineup tonight due to a sore lower back, which locked up on him in the first inning yesterday when he slid into second on a force play. “I could barely make it off the field,” Presley said. “I got some treatment on it, loosened it up, and was able to stay in the game. But it hurts again today.”

»»» The Pirates must win tonight to avoid 90 losses for the first time since 2004. They are 72-89, a 15-win improvement over last season. That’s their biggest single-year jump forward since they gained 21 victories from 1989 to 1990.

»»» The Brewers already have clinched the division, but still have plenty of incentive to do well tonight. They’re fighting for home-field edge in the first round of the playoffs. Also, Ryan Braun, who’s hitting .335, could win the NL batting title if he goes 3 for 4 in tonight’s game. He trails Jose Reyes, who singled in the first inning this afternoon to raise his average to .337, then asked to be taken out of the game.

Game 162: Pirates @ Brewers, 8:10 p.m. ET

Pirates (72-89) – 1. Xavier Paul lf, 2. Neil Walker 2b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Derrek Lee 1b, 5. Garrett Jones rf, 6. Jason Jaramillo c, 7. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Jeff Locke lhp (0-2, 4.97)

Brewers (95-66) – 1. Corey Hart rf, 2. Jerry Hairston cf, 3. Ryan Braun lf, 4. Prince Fielder 1b, 5. Rickie Weeks 2b, 6. Yuniesky Betancourt ss, 7. Jonathan Lucroy c, 8. Carlos Gomez cf, 9. Zach Greinke rhp (15-6, 3.86)

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Pregame: Morton ‘did the job’

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MILWAUKEE — Charlie Morton reached a lot of milestones this year. He earned a career-high 10 victories. He amassed 110 strikeouts, the first time in his career the right-hander’s reached triple digits. He made 29 starts in the majors, also a career best. He led the team with nine sacrifice bunts and collected his first two RBI.

“I’ll look back on the year and see plenty of ups and downs, but I feel like I did my job, for the most part,” Morton said after taking a no-decision Monday against the Brewers. “That feels a lot better than it did last year.”

Last season, Morton went 2-12 with a 7.57 ERA. He spent much of the year at Triple-A Indianapolis, trying to rebuild his confidence. The hours he spent with Indy manager Dean Treanor and Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage have paid off.

“I know more about what I need to do and who I am on the mound,” Morton said. “Before, I put in a lot of work and spent a lot of time, but it wasn’t really going anywhere. Now, I feel like the work and time I invest will be put to good use. I’m going in a certain direction now, as opposed to going downhill or just floating around. I’m heading in the right direction.”

»»» Monday’s 9-8 win took four hours, 13 minutes to play. It was the Pirates’ longest nine-inning game since at least 1984.

»»» Tony Watson gave up a single to the only batter he faced last night and that guy ended up scoring. It snapped Watson’s streak of 10 scoreless innings.

»»» Catcher Michael McKenry will got to Instructional League for a week or so after the season for some one-on-one hitting instruction. That could be an indication that McKenry is ahead of Jason Jaramillo (who’ll be out of minor league options in 2012) and Matt Pagnozzi (who’ll be a free agent this winter) in management’s plans for next season.

Pirates @ Brewers, 8:10 p.m. ET

Pirates (72-88) – 1. Alex Presley cf, 2. Josh Harrison 3b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Derrek Lee 1b, 5. Neil Walker 2b, 6. Ryan Ludwick rf, 7. Matt Pagnozzi c, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. rhp Ross Ohlendorf (1-3, 8.29)

Brewers (94-66) — 1. Corey Hart rf, 2. Jerry Hairston cf, 3. Ryan Braun lf, 4. Prince Fielder 1b, 5. Rickie Weeks 2b, 6. Casey McGehee 3b, 7. Yuniesky Betancourt ss, 8. George Kottaras c, 9. Randy Wolf lhp (13-10, 3.61)

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Pregame: Welcome to Miller Park

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MillerPark

MILWAUKEE — As if the Pirates don’t already have enough cause to dread coming to Miller Park, the fine folks here hung up a welcome banner over the visiting players’ entrance. The Bucs have dropped 12 straight games at Miller Park since winning two in a row on April 27-28, 2010. The last Pirates starting pitcher to pick up a victory here was Tom Gorzelanny in 2007. (A nod to Jen Langosch of pirates.com for that last bit o’ research).

»»» Alex Presley has six triples, which ties him with the Cubs’ Darwin Barney for most among NL rookies. The last Pirate to hold that honor was Al Martin, who had eight triples in 1993.

»»» Pirates.com today was first to report that special assistant to the GM Larry Corrigan was cut loose by the Pirates. Major league scout Keith Champion also was fired.

»»» Not to put too fine a point on it, but Neil Walker’s .992147 fielding percentage squeaks past that of Cincy’s Brandon Phillps (.991573) for tops in the NL among second basemen. The club record for a second baseman is .993, set by Johnny Ray in 1986.

»»» They don’t hit a lot of homers, but they can find the gaps. The Pirates have hit 16 doubles over their past five games. The lead the NL with 101 doubles since Aug. 1. Since the All-Star break, only the Mets (138) have more doubles than that Pirates (125).

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Pirates (71-88) – 1. Alex Presley cf, 2. Neil Walker 2b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Derrek Lee 1b, 5. Garrett Jones rf, 6. Jason Jaramillo c, 7. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 8. Chase d’Arnaud ss, 9. Charlie Morton rhp (10-10, 3.67)

Brewers (94-65) – 1. Corey Hart rf, 2. Nyjer Morgan cf, 3. Mark Kotsay lf, 4. Prince Fielder 1b, 5. Rickie Weeks 2b, 6. Jerry Hairston 3b, 7. Yuniesky Betancourt ss, 8. Jonathan Lucroy c, 9. Shaun Marcum rhp (13-7, 3.31)

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Pregame: Cole to AFL

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PHOENIX — It’s not quite breaking news, but it is finally official: Gerrit Cole will play in the Arizona Fall League. GM Neal Huntington said the day Cole signed that the top overall draft pick likely would go to the AFL, which will pit him against some of the top prospects in the game. Today, the Pirates formally announced Cole is on Mesa’s roster.

“We always thought the best way for Gerrit to begin his development in our organization was to be challenged by the competition in Arizona,” Huntington said. “We felt like he was ready to handle it. We felt it would be a good step for him, a good entry into professional baseball, and get him ready for 2012.”

Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, the top picks in the past two years by the Washington Nationals, also went to the AFL after signing their contracts.

»»» Matt Pagnozzi is in the lineup today, making him the eighth catcher the Pirates have used this season. That’s the most since 1914, when they used nine.

Lineups for today’s game:

Pirates (69-86) – 1. Alex Presley cf, 2. Pedro Ciriaco ss, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Derrek Lee 1b, 5. Neil Walker 2b, 6. Ryan Ludwick rf, 7. Brandon Wood 3b, 8. Matt Pagnozzi c, 9. Ross Ohlendorf rhp (1-2, 6.82)

Diamondbacks (89-66) – 1. Willie Bloomquist ss, 2. Aaron Hill 2b, 3. Justin Upton rf, 4. Miguel Montero c, 5. Chris Young cf, 6. Lyle Overbay 1b, 7. Ryan Roberts 3b, 8. Gerardo Parra lf, 9. Wade Miley lhp (3-2, 4.24)

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Pregame: Alvarez takes baby steps

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PHOENIX — In one stretch during the series last weekend against the Dodgers, Pedro Alvarez walked in five out of six plate appearances. Over the past two weeks, he’s bumped up his on-base percentage 10 points to .270. During batting practice last night, Alvarez slammed two balls off the massive video scoreboard in center field at Chase Field. In the fifth inning, he drove center fielder Chris Young to the wall for a deep, deep fly out. While neither of those examples are any reason to crack open a bottle of bubbly, they still are signs of progress.

»»» The Pirates have been mulling holding their Winter Caravan and Piratfest in mid-December instead of the usual late-January dates. That theoretically would boost ticket sales, encouraging folks to slip a mini season-ticket plan in somebody’s stocking. It also would make things a bit easier on the players, who in the past have gone straight from the Caravan and Piratefest to spring training.

»»» It hasn’t been officially announced yet, but top draft pick Gerrit Cole will pitch in the Arizona Fall League.

»»The Pirates pitching staff has a 3.98 ERA — a dramatic improvement from last year, when it was a league-worst 5.00. That drop of 1.02 points is the best in the majors, ahead of gains by the Diamondbacks (who improved by 1.01 points) and the Brewers (who improved by 0.98 point). At the end of July, the Pirates’ ERA was 3.43, but the staff has posted a 5.22 ERA over the past 48 games.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Pirates (68-86) – 1. Alex Presley cf, 2. Neil Walker 2b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Derrek Lee 1b, 5. Ryan Doumit c, 6. Garrett Jones 1b, 7. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Charlie Morton rhp (9-10, 3.81)

Diamondbacks (89-65) – 1. Willie Bloomquist ss, 2. Aaron Hill 2b, 3. Justin Upton rf, 4. Miguel Montero c, 5. Paul Goldschmidt 1b, 6. Chris Young cf, 7. Ryan Roberts 3b, 8. Gerardo Parra lf, 9. Daniel Hudson rhp (3.39)

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Pregame: Local guys

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LOS ANGELES — A quickie blog this fine morning about three Buccos with LA ties …

»»» Reliever Jared Hughes has allowed just four hits — all singles — and zero runs in his first seven outings in the majors. Hughes was not on the 40-man roster at the start of the year and pitched this season at Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indy. Hughes, a SoCal native who played at Long Beach State, was a fourth-round draft pick in 2006.

»»» Last night was the first time ex-Dodgers pitcher James McDonald faced his former mates. And how’s this for coincidence and irony and whatnot: It came three years to the day from when McDonald made his MLB debut with the Dodgers against the Pirates at PNC Park.

»»» Chase d’Arnaud played at nearby Pepperdine. The past couple of days, some folks from the college’s athletic department were here to catch up with d’Arnaud and shoot an interview for a “local guy makes good” video.

Lineups for today’s game:

Pirates (68-84) – 1. Alex Presley cf, 2. Xavier Paul rf, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Ryan Doumit c, 5. Neil Walker 2b, 6. Garrett Jones 1b, 7. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Brad Lincoln rhp (1-2, 3.73)

Dodgers (75-76) – 1. Dee Gordon ss, 2. Jamey Carroll 2b, 3. Matt Kemp cf, 4. Juan Rivera rf, 5. James Loney 1b, 6. Aaron Miles 3b, 7. Jerry Sands rf, 8. A.J. Ellis c, 9. Chad Billingsley rhp (10-10, 4.30)

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Pregame: Front office shuffle

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There are a bunch of Texas fans staying at my hotel in Pasadena. The Longhorns play UCLA on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
There are a bunch of Texas fans staying at my hotel in Pasadena. The Longhorns play UCLA on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

LOS ANGELES — When GM Neal Huntington was hired in 2007, there was talk right away about hiring an assistant GM or two. It never happened, though, giving the first-time GM time to consolidate his power and forge his identity in the industry.

Huntington got a three-year contract extension last week. With his position established, Huntington today handed out promotions and elevated three of his top lieutenants — farm director Kyle Stark, scouting director Greg Smith and director of baseball operations Tyrone Brooks — to assistant GM status.

Brooks, 38, will lead the professional and international (non-Latin) scouting departments. Smith, 45, will be in charge of all levels of professional and amateur scouting. Stark, 33, will handle all elements of the medical, physical, mental, personal and player development departments at the major and minor league levels.

Other promotions: Joe DelliCarri was moved up from assistant scouting director to director of amateur scouting. Larry Broadway was moved up from area scout to director of minor league operations. Kevan Graves is the new director of baseball operations, a step up from his previous role as an assistant.

The Pirates also retained Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo and special assistant to the GM Doug Strange in their current positions.

“Each of these individuals has played an integral part in our building process,” Huntington said. “We believe each person is ready for new challenges and that each will have an even greater impact on the Pirates organization in their new roles and responsibilities.”

»»» Last night marked the Pirates’ 35th comeback win this season, their most since 2006. The 1997 “Freak Show” team rallied for 41 victories.

»»» When he gets into a game, Matt Pagnozzi will become the eighth catcher used by the Pirates this year — the most in any season since 1953. The Pirates used nine catchers in 1914.

»»» Hiroki Kuroda, who’ll start tonight for the Dodgers, has the 12th-best ERA in the National League. Yet, if the Pirates beat him tonight, Kuroda will become the first Dodgers pitcher with 17 losses since Fernando Valenzuela in 1984. (Thanks to @STATS_MLB via Twitter for that factoid.)

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Pirates (68-82) – 1. Alex Presley cf, 2. Neil Walker 2b, 3. Ryan Doumit c, 4. Derrek Lee 1b, 5. Garrett Jones, rf, 6. Ryan Ludwick lf, 7. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Jeff Locke lhp (0-1, 5.40)

Dodgers (73-76) – 1. Dee Gordon ss, 2. Justin Sellers 2b, 3. Matt Kemp cf, 4. Juan Rivera rf, 5. Jerry Sands lf, 6. Rod Barajas c, 7. Russell Mitchell 3b, 8. Jamey Carroll 2b, 9. Hiroki Kuroda rhp (11-16, 3.25)

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Pregame: Is Pagnozzi the future?

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pagnozziLOS ANGELES — It will be interesting to see how much playing time catcher Matt Pagnozzi gets over the final 12 games of the season. He joined the team today, but is not in the lineup against the Dodgers. The Pirates claimed Pagnozzi, 28, off waivers yesterday from the Rockies. A former eighth-round pick, Pagnozzi started his career with the Cardinals, the same team that once employed his uncle, Todd Pagnozzi, also a catcher.

If, as expected, the Pirates opt not to pick up the pricey options for Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit, Pagnozzi could have the inside track as the starting catcher next season. The free-agent market for catchers this year will not be strong. Neither Jason Jaramillo (who will be out of minor league options next year) nor Michael McKenry projects as an everyday catcher in the majors.

»»» Here’s a reason to give Doumit ample playing time in this four-game set against the Dodgers: he’s hitting 7 for 12 against them this season, and is 38 for 106 (.358) with 22 RBI in 33 games in career vs. Los Angeles. In 12 games at Dodger Stadium, Doumit is 14 for 41 (.341) with eight RBI.

»»» Jinx alert! Neil Walker is riding a career-best streak of 44 games without making an error at second base. Earlier this season, he went 42 games without making a miscue. He ranks second in the NL with a .992 fielding percentage. The club record for best single-season fielding pecentage is .993, set by … Johnny Ray in 1986. (Betcha thought I was going to say Maz.)

»»» The Pirates are 33-38 on the road, their most wins away from PNC Park since they went 34-47 in 2002. Last year, they won 17 road games.

»»» The Dodgers have five rookies in their starting lineup tonight.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Pirates (67-82) – 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Neil Walker 2b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Derrek Lee 1b, 5. Ryan Doumit c, 6. Ryan Ludwick rf, 7. Josh Harrison 3b, 8. Pedro Ciriaco ss, 9. Ross Ohlendorf rhp (0-0, 8.03)

Dodgers (73-75) – 1. Dee Gordon ss, 2. Justin Sellers 2b, 3. Matt Kemp cf, 4. Juan Rivera rf, 5. James Loney 1b, 6. Jerry Sands lf, 7. Russell Mitchell 3b, 8. Tim Federowicz c, 9. Dana Eveland (2-0, 0.60)

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Pregame: Six-man rotation

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Jeff Karstens will rejoin the starting rotation on Tuesday, when he faces the Cardinals at PNC Park. The right-hander has missed his past two turns due to shoulder fatigue. Unless another starter gets pulled for a breather, it seems the Pirates will go with a six-man rotation the rest of the way: Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Locke, James McDonald, Brad Lincoln, Karstens and Charlie Morton.

Lineups for today’s game:

Marlins (63-79) – 1. Emilio Bonifacio ss, 2. Omar Infante 2b, 3. Greg Dobbs 3b, 4. Mike Stanton rf, 5. Logan Morrison lf, 6. Jose Lopez 1b, 7. Bryan Petersen cf, 8. John Buck c, 9. Ricky Nolasco rhp (9-10, 4.39)

Pirates (66-77) – 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Neil Walker 2b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Derrek Lee 1b, 5. Ryan Doumit c, 6. Ryan Ludwick rf, 7. Josh Harrison 3b, 8. Pedro Ciriaco ss, 9. Ross Ohlendorf rhp (0-1, 6.35)

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Pregame: Frequent flier

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Was this the bat Derrek Lee used in the ninth inning Saturday?
Was this the bat Derrek Lee used in the ninth inning Saturday?

CHICAGO — Pedro’s back. No, not the slugger. The king of frequent flier miles, Pedro Ciriaco. The infielder was recalled this morning from Triple-A Indianapolis and will be in uniform for the game this afternoon against the Cubs. It’s Ciriaco’s sixth stint with the Pirates this season.

»»» Xavier Paul’s single in the ninth inning Saturday snapped an 0-for-19 slump by Pirates pinch-hitters. Until Paul’s hit the Pirates had not gotten a pinch hit since Matt Diaz singled Aug. 20 against Cincinnati.

 

»»» Derrek Lee’s grand slam Saturday was his 107th career homer and seventh grand slam at Wrigley Field. It was his first homer at Wrigley since the Cubs traded him away in August 2010. Lee ranks second in slams hit at Wrigley behind Ernie Banks, who hit eight. As highlights of Lee’s homer were flashing on the clubhouse TV this morning, one player smiled and said, “Roy Hobbs!”

Want an even more obscure note? According the Elias wonks, Lee is the first player in major league history to hit a grand slam in the ninth inning or later to turn a deficit into a lead against a team for which he had already hit at least 100 homers.

»»» Righty Jeff Karstens (shoulder fatigue) said he feels all right after playing long toss yesterday and a recent MRI exam showed no structural damage. He’ll throw a bullpen session in the next couple of days, then be re-evalulated.

»»» Indy won last night, but still was eliminated from playoff contention because Lehigh Valley won. The Indians wrap up their season on Monday. Yesterday’s game at Victory Field was a “shirt off their back” promotion. Catcher Wyatt Toregas had this advice for the fan who won his jersey: “Have fun with it. Frame it.”

»»» Low-A West Virginia went 34-33 at home, its first winning season at home since 2008, when the team was affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers. Power pitchers have tossed a club-record 13 shutouts. … Short-season Class A State College will conclude its season today against Williamsport.

Lineups for today’s game:

Pirates (64-75) – 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Josh Harrison 3b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Derrek Lee 1b, 5. Neil Walker 2b, 6. Garrett Jones 1b,7. Ronny Cedeno ss, 8. Michael McKenry c, 9. Charlie Morton rhp (9-8, 3.74)

Cubs (59-80) – 1. Starlin Castro ss, 2. Tony Campana rf, 3. Aramis Ramirez 3b, 4. Carlos Pena 1b, 5. Bryan LaHair lf, 6. Marlon Byrd cf, 7. Darwin Barney 2b, 8. Koyie Hill c, 9. Randy Wells rhp (6-4, 5.06)

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