Why Hurdle backs Barmes

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Manager Clint Hurdle has never flinched in his support of shortstop Clint Barmes this season. Even when Barmes’ batting average was still stuck well below .200 in mid-June, he usually found his name in the starting lineup.

Was it because Barmes and Hurdle share the same first name? Because they were buddies from back in their Colorado Rockies days? Because Barmes is making $10.5 million? Because he’s a veteran? Because he’s been around winning and losing clubs before? Because he’s a quiet, unassuming leader? Because he knows how to read NL batters far better than Jordy Mercer or Josh Harrison? Because he mashed 23 homers three seasons ago? Because he mashed a walkoff, three-run homer off Trevor Hoffman as a rookie on Opening Day 2005? Or just because that bulging vein on his bald dome sometimes makes him look downright mean?

There’s a little bit of all of that in the reason. Or, as Hurdle explained this afternoon: “(Barmes) works hard, he understands what’s at stake. He wants to really help out and be part of something significant. He does embody a lot of what’s going on, because he’s a blue-collar kid. He grinds things out and doesn’t take anything for granted.”

Hurdle has gotten plenty of unsolicited advice this summer from folks who want to see Barmes’ butt either nailed to the bench, sent down to Indy or flat-out released. But, as he watched Barmes whack a game-turning grand slam Sunday afternoon, Hurdle did not succumb to feelings of “told-ya-so” or self-satisfaction. “That’s a place I don’t go,” Hurdle said. “I believe in what I believe in, so it’s not personal satisfaction. Sometimes, it plays out. When it doesn’t play out, I’m not going to kick a guy to the curb. I really believe there’s some validity to what we’re trying to do with him getting the games that he gets. There is a security within our clubhouse when he’s at shortstop, moreso than the other guys — based on volume (of experience), based on pedigree, based on all those things defensively. You look at Mercer and he could be the next guy to go there. You look at Harrison and the improvement he’s made has been noticeable. We’re trying to mix and match to put our best team out there each night. (Barmes) has helped us win some games, moreso with the glove than with the bat. But there’s still a bunch of games for him to help with the bat.”

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Nunez lives!

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Remember Gustavo Nunez? (I’ll pause for a moment and wait while you Google him.) The infiedler whom the Pirates snagged in the Rule 5 Draft last Decemeber today began a rehab assignment with the Gulf Coast League Pirates. Nunez was in big league spring training camp, then went on the 60-day DL when the Pirates acquried A.J. Burnett. He’s missed the entire season recovering from right ankle surgery.

Game 115: Dodgers @ Pirates, 7:05 p.m. ET

Dodgers (62-53): 1. Shane Victorino lf, 2. Mark Ellis 2b, 3. Matt Kemp cf, 4. Andre Ethier rf, 5. Hanley Ramirez ss, 6. James Loney 1b, 7. Adam Kennedy 3b, 8. A.J. Ellis c, 9. Aaron Harang rhp (7-7, 3.80)

Pirates (64-50): 1. Starling Marte lf, 2. Neil Walker 2b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Gaby Sanchez 1b, 6. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 7. Michael McKenry c, 8. Clint Barmes ss, 9. Jeff Karstens rhp (4-2, 3.77)

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Slumping J-Mac will stay in rotation

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GM Neal Huntington said the Pirates are committed to keeping slumping RHP James McDonald in the starting rotation. Coaches Ray Searage and Euclides Rojas and manager Clint Hurdle “have worked hard to find the best way to get J-Mac back on track,” Huntington said today. “For about an 11-hitter stretch, we thought we had him back on track. We got him too big of a lead. Maybe next time, we don’t get him as big of a lead because he seemed to take his foot off the gas.”

McDonald blew a 7-1 lead Friday against the Padres. He worked 4 1/3 innings and yielded seven runs on seven hits, walked one and struck out four. “We’re looking at, are there changes in his stuff? Are there changes in his mechanics? Are there changes in his approach or mentality?” Huntington said. “We see J-Mac as a very good starting pitcher for us for years to come. We’re trying to find the best way to get him back on track.”

»»» LHP Justin Wilson almost certainly will be a September callup, given that he’s being shifted to the bullpen at Triple-A Indy. “We’re trying to give Clint a second left-hander,” Huntington said. “We looked at it aggressively at the trade deadline, but guys we liked (were either) unavailable or the prospect cost was too much. As we looked internally, Justin has more than enough stuff to pitch effectively in that role. In a perfect world, we don’t want to bring a guy to the big leagues and have him do something that he hasn’t done before.” Last season, Wilson made nine relief outings, but always entered the game to start an inning and never went back-to-back days. Now, he’ll get some mid-inning outings and some on consecutive days.

Wilson started a couple of days ago for Indy only because LHP Jeff Locke was called up. Huntington indicated Locke will head back to Indy once the Pirates get through this demanding stretch of 20 games in 20 days. “Jeff’s built up his innings well enough that we’re not concerned about his innings count, going into next year,” Huntington said. “It’s not like he’s a real hard thrower with max effort delivery. He does things smooth, easy and free. But at some point we do want to get him a few starts (at Indy) before the end of the season.”

»»» OF Josh Bell continues to be bothered by swelling in his knee as he recovers from surgery at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. Bell’s missed a lot of time this season, but probably is not a candidate to be sent to winter ball. Instead, the Pirates remain hopeful he can still get in some time with Low-A West Virginia, then make up more at-bats in Instructional League this offseason.

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Hughes demoted, but likely will return soon

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Reliever Juan Cruz was activated from the disabled list and Jared Hughes was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis. Despite a recent rough patch, Hughes basically got caught in a numbers crunch — somebody had to go. LHP Jeff Locke might be been the odd man out, but the Pirates need depth in the bullpen over the next few days, with Erik Bedard going today and a challenging stretch ahead against the Dodgers.

Hughes tossed 2 1/3 scoreless innings Saturday, but gave up five earned runs in 1 2/3 innings over his previous two outings. “I made the adjustments I needed to yesterday and pitched well,” Hughes said. “I made the adjustments to where I think I can just continue doing that for the next few weeks, go down there, stay positive and earn another callup.”

Players who are added to the active roster after the end of this month are not eligible for the playoffs. So, it’s a good bet Hughes will be back in Pittsburgh sometime in the next couple of weeks. “If you want to stay, pitch better,” Hughes said. “I’ve got to go down, stay positive and pitch better. Right now, it’s the way it’s going to have to be with the numbers. There’s no sense in getting upset. I’ll do my work and come back.”

»»» Manager Clint Hurdle said OF Travis Snider (tight hammy) “feels better” today and probably will be available off the bench today.

»»» The opposing team has scored at least one run in the first inning in each of the past five games and has homered in three straight first innings. In the opening frame this year, the Pirates have been outscored 77-56 and have allowed 21 home runs.

»»» The Padres have won 11 consecutive games at PNC Park. The last time the Pirates beat the Pads on the North Shore was Sept. 18, 2009. Overall, the Pirates are 9-28 at home against San Diego and have never won a series against the Padres at PNC Park.

Game 114: Padres @ Pirates, 1:35 p.m. ET

Padres (51-64): 1. Chris Denorfia lf, 2. Logan Forsythe 2b, 3. Chase Headley 3b, 4. Carlos Quentin rf, 5. Jesus Guzman 1b, 6. Cameron Maybin cf, 7. Everth Cabrera ss, 8. Nick Hundley c, 9. Ross Ohlendorf rhp (4-2, 5.61)

Pirates (63-50): 1. Starling Marte lf, 2. Neil Walker 2b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Gaby Sanchez 1b, 6. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 7. Michael McKenry c, 8. Clint Barmes ss, 9. Erik Bedard lhp (6-12, 4.53)

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Power surge

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Since June 1, only two teams in the majors have homered more often than the Pirates. The Yankees (97 homers) lead, followed by the Angels (91) and the Bucs (90). The Pirates have homered 10 times in their past seven games and have hit at least one in 24 of their past 30 games. For the season, the Pirates rank third in the NL with 126 home runs, trailing the Brewers (133) and Reds (129).

= Reliever Juan Cruz (shoulder) will work out with pitchers before the game today, so it will be a while yet before the Pirates announce the next step in his rehab process. “We’re still working through it,” manager Clint Hurdle said during his pregame confab. Cruz has made two outings with Double-A Altoona. … Tony Watson is not available in the bullpen tonight.

Game 113: Padres @ Pirates, 7:05 p.m. ET

Padres (50-64): 1. Alexi Amarista 2b, 2. Everth Cabrera ss, 3. Chase Headley 3b, 4. Carlos Quentin rf, 5. Yonder Alonso 1b, 6. Will Venable lf, 7. Cameron Maybin cf, 8. John Baker c. 9. Jason Marquis rhp (5-6, 4.10)

Pirates (63-49): 1. Starling Marte lf, 2. Travis Snider rf, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones 1b, 5. Neil Walker 2b, 6. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 7. Josh Harrison ss, 8. Rod Barajas c, 9. A.J. Burnett rhp (14-3, 3.19)

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Friday column: Director’s cut

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My weekly column in today’s Trib had to be trimmed due to space constraints. Here’s what I guess you could call the “director’s cut,” my unedited piece. Some of y’nz have asked via Twitter and email who the “holdover players” are who are unhappy with the deadline deals. At the risk of sounding like Sen. Harry Reid, I cannot reveal my sources. Suffice it to say, I canvassed the clubhouse before and after the trade deadline and had several long conversations.

It’s only been 10 days since the non-waiver trade deadline, so it’s impossible to say with any certainly how well the Pirates did with their deals.

Their first move was to acquire Wandy Rodriguez, which put another lefty in the rotation by bumping Kevin Correia to the bullpen. They also picked up veteran reliever Chad Qualls, who’s struggled this year and was about to be cut by the Yankees.

The Pirates made bids for potentially high-impact guys such as Hunter Pence, Shin-Soo Choo, Shane Victorino and Chase Headley. Counter-offers were made by the other clubs, who had no shortage of suitors. In the end, the Pirates got Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez, who both had spent much of this season at Triple-A.

When he announced the trades, GM Neal Huntington spent a lot of time talking about “years of control,” especially with Snider and Sanchez. Both those players are making near the major league minimum and won’t hit free agency for a while. Hope for the future, blah blah blah. One phrase we didn’t hear, though, was, “This puts us over the top in the playoff race this year.”

At the start of spring training, Huntington made a sexy trade for a difference-maker when he snatched A.J. Burnett away from the Yankees. The clubhouse was energized from the moment Burnett first toted his gear to his locker at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. Since then, the feeling has only grown more positive.

It was different when Rodriguez, Qualls, Sanchez and Snider arrived. Not exactly in a bad way — everyone’s personality and personal circumstances are different, of course — but also not in a manner that suggests the team feels a new sense of completeness. There’s a feeling among some of the holdover Pirates players that, with a postseason berth within reach this season, management did not step up and get them some help for the here and now.

Manager Clint Hurdle knows the temperature of his team. When he closed the doors for a post-deadline day meeting last week in Chicago, Hurdle wanted to stomp out any dissatisfaction about the new-look roster. “Anyone who has any GM in them, they’ve got to let it go,” Hurdle said. “Anyone who has any manager in them, they’ve got to let it go.”

The price to get Burnett was almost shamefully cheap: two minor leaguers with low ceilings and not a ton of cash in salary obligations. The cost to get Snider — former first-rounder Brad Lincoln — was higher. Yet, the front office did not part with any of its top prospects. And, with an eye toward escalating salaries for guys like Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, James McDonald and Pedro Alvarez, management moved to keep other costs low.

The future could’ve been now. Instead, the five-year plan mentality is still alive.

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Walker owes his life to Clemente

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It’s already a long list, but here’s another thing for which Pirates fans can thank Roberto Clemente: Neil Walker’s birth. ESPN will tell the tale at 9 a.m. Sunday on “Outside the Lines” and again on the 10 a.m. SportsCenter.

Clemente died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972 while trying to take supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. One of the people who helped load the plane was Tom Walker, who was pitching winter ball after making his major league debut with the Expos the previous summer. Walker asked if he could go on the trip, but Clemente told him stay behind. “It’s one of those points in my life where my life could have been taken,” Tom Walker told ESPN. “I’ve had such an incredibly great life. I have to think back and thank Roberto for not letting me go on the plane.”

Neil Walker was born in 1985. “It’s very odd to think about it,” Neil Walker said. “And, you know, you do get a little emotional when you think about how different things could be or how fortunate you are. And, you think of Roberto Clemente and how little I know him, but how much he’s impacted my life.”

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Locke here today, Tabata soon to follow?

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This afternoon, LHP Jeff Locke was recalled from Triple-A Indy and OF Alex Presley was sent down. Locke gives the Pirates depth in the bullpen, with RHP Kevin Correia making a spot start today. Locke’s stay could be brief — Correia could be ready to pitch again out of the bullpen in three days or so — which raises the possibility of a Jose Tabata recall in the near future.

»»» Correia has won his past six decisions, which ties him with Kyle Lohse for the longest active streak in the National League. A.J. Burnett won a club- and season-best nine straight decisions from May 19 to July 8.

Game 110: Diamondbacks @ Pirates, 7:05 p.m. ET

D’backs (56-54): 1. Stephen Drew ss, 2. Willie Bloomquist 2b, 3. Chris Johnson 3b, 4. Paul Goldschmidt 1b, 5. Justin Upton rf, 6. Miguel Montero c, 7. Chris Young cf, 8. Gerardo Parra lf, 9. Ian Kennedy rhp (10-8, 4.15)

Pirates (62-47): 1. Starling Marte lf, 2. Travis Snider rf, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones 1b, 5. Neil Walker 2b, 6. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 7. Rod Barajas c, 8. Jordy Mercer ss, 9. Kevin Correia rhp (8-6, 4.49)

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Wilson goes back to bullpen

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LHP Justin Wilson again is in transition from being a starter to a reliever at Triple-A Indianapolis. “It might give him an opportunity to be more impactful at the major league level,” manager Clint Hurdle said. In 23 starts at Indy, Wilson is 8-5 with a 4.14 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP. When rosters expand Sept. 1, the Pirates will look to give lefty Tony Watson some help. Wilson and Doug Slaten (who today was outrighted to Indy after clearing waivers) figure to get callups.

A fifth-round draft pick in 2008, the 24-year-old Wilson has been a fast-riser in the farm system. He started 73 of his first 74 outings, throwing a curveball, slider, changeup and a fastball that touched 94 mph. As part of the rotation last season at Indy, Wilson’s strikeout-to-walk ratio dipped, and the number of hits and walks he allowed per inning rose. When he was switched to a reliever for nine outings, Wilson’s velocity spiked at 99 mph and his command improved.

»»» SS Brock Holt was promoted to Triple-A Indy. He takes the roster spot of Jeff Larish, who’s on the DL.

Game 109: Diamondbacks @ Pirates, 7:05 p.m. ET

D’backs (55-54): 1. Stephen Drew ss, 2. Aaron Hill 2b, 3. Jason Kubel lf, 4. Paul Goldschmidt 1b, 5. Justin Upton rf, 6. Miguel Montero c, 7. Chris Johnson 3b, 8. Gerardo Parra cf, 9. Patrick Corbin lhp (3-4, 3.60)

Pirates (62-46): 1. Starling Marte lf, 2. Travis Snider rf, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Gaby Sanchez 1b, 5. Neil Walker 2b, 6. Michael McKenry c, 7. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 8. Clint Barmes ss, 9. Jeff Karstens rhp (4-2, 3.70)

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Burnett is named POW

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RHP A.J. Burnett today was named National League player of the week for the third time in his career. It’s the first time since 2007 the Pirates can claim three POW in the same season (Andrew McCutchen got the other two this year). Burnett went 2-0 with a 1.02 ERA, including a one-hitter Tuesday against the Cubs.

»»» RP Juan Cruz (shoulder) is scheduled to toss one inning tonight to begin a rehab assignment with Double-A Altoona. Cruz has been on the DL since July 18.

»»» The Pirates are 10-4 against lefties at PNC Park this season. The D’backs are slated to start three LHP in this four-game series.

»»» Indy RHP Rick VandenHurk was named Triple-A International League pitcher of the week. VandenHurk went 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA and racked up 14 strikeouts in 13 innings. In 16 outings (14 starts) this season, VandenHurk is 11-3 with a 3.34 ERA and is part of a five-way tie for the league lead in wins.

Game 108: Diamondbacks @ Pirates, 7:05 p.m. ET

D’backs (55-53): 1. Willie Bloomquist ss, 2. Aaron Hill 2b, 3. Jason Kubel lf, 4. Paul Goldschmidt 1b, 5. Justin Upton rf, 6. Miguel Montero c, 7. Chris Johnson 3b, 8. Chris Young cf, 9. Wade Miley lhp (12-6, 2.98)

Pirates (61-46): 1. Starling Marte lf, 2. Josh Harrison 3b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Gaby Sanchez 1b, 5. Neil Walker 2b, 6. Garrett Jones rf, 7. Rod Barajas c, 8. Clint Barmes ss, 9. Erik Bedard lhp (5-12, 4.83)

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