This ‘n’at …

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Observations as we near the first homestand of the season:

&#149 Brian Bixler looks timid at the plate, on the bases and in the field. It’s not surprising, considering he’s a 25-year-old rookie who got an unexpected callup last weekend. Still, you’d like to see a little more aggression, especially in the batter’s box. Moments ago, he struck out with runners on the corners and one out and pitcher Ian Snell on deck. It was a great opportunity for his first RBI in the majors, yet Bixler never took one hard swing — he struck out on a checked swing.

&#149 Evan Meek could be getting ready to rev it up. Meek has been working with pitching coach Jeff Andrews on a revamped delivery. I’m not gonna go all seamhead on ya with the boring details; it has to do with Meek getting his hips a bit lower as he throws.

The alteration is designed to give Meek better control. At the moment, however, he’s struggling to get comfortable with it and doesn’t fully trust it. “When you see me get it back up to 97 mph, then you’ll know I’m close,” he told me. Thursday night, Meek blew a 97 mph heater past Derrek Lee.

He’s close.

&#149 Before today’s game, I asked manager John Russell if Tom Gorzelanny’s shoulder is healthy. Russell assured me everything is good to go. The lefty was overused last season, especially in the final few weeks. I would not be shocked if Gorzelanny needs to skip a start or two somewhere along the line this season.

&#149 Matt Morris, on the downward arc of his career, has to get it done with guile and guts. He showed plenty of both Thursday by going seven innings and giving the bullpen a breather. He won’t win 20 games … or 15, or maybe even 10 … this season, but he is teaching everyone else in the clubhouse — especially the 20somethings in the starting rotation — something about what it means to be a pitcher.

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I jumped the gun

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ATLANTA — I spoke (wrote, actually) too soon about Freddy Sanchez.

Just an inning or two after I posted an entry here saying Sanchez was due for a day off before his shoulder fatigued, Sanchez left the game as a precaution to rest his shoulder.

(That doesn’t make me a psychic. It just means I have a little common sense.)

I still think Sanchez could use a day off during the Marlins series. However, it will be tougher to keep him out of the lineup as long as shortstop Jack Wilson’s status is unclear. Wilson strained his calf while running to first base after a single, and is out indefinitely.

Wilson’s injury was set up by a collision at second base with Matt Diaz. Diaz was trying to break up what he thought was a double play attempt, and went out of his way to hook slide and take out Wilson’s legs.

Wilson said later there are no hard feelings because Diaz was trying to make a hard, clean play. Watch the replay, then believe that if you want.

&#149 The Pirates took two out of three games in their opening series against the Braves. It was nice to shut up those tomahawk-choppers. Still, the Pirates’ record at Turner Field is a measly 14-30.

&#149 Zach Duke looked pretty good, holding the Braves to three runs (two earned) in 5 2/3 innings. Still, the lefty gave up 10 hits and a walk against 28 batters. Things could have been worse, if not for two outstanding defensive plays by center fielder Nate McLouth (I’ll write more about that in Saturday’s Trib …)
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Easy does it

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ATLANTA — Don’t be surprised if second baseman Freddy Sanchez gets a day off tomorrow or Saturday.

Sanchez’s bum shoulder still is causing him pain, and it was especially obvious moments ago when he made a lollipop toss to first base after fielding Martin Prado’s sharp grounder.

Sanchez already has adjusted his arm slot, throwing three-quarters (not quite sidearm) to make it less painful. But without rest, the should will quickly become fatigued and the inflammation may return.

“Nobody’s going to play every day,” manager John Russell said this afternoon.

From the look of things, Sanchez could use a break in the next day or two.

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God bless Frank Coonelly

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ATLANTA — Frank Coonelly was disgusted last September when, a few days after being hired as Pirates president, he saw the Pirates lounging and laughing in their dugout while “God Bless America” was being played.

Coonelly brought up that moment more than a few times this past offseason, telling fans it wouldn’t happen again on his watch.

Monday night, the country group Whiskey Falls sang the song during the seventh-inning stretch. I made sure to look down at the Pirates’ dugout … and I saw several players and coaches standing alongside the railing, hats off and hands over their hearts. Three Pirates players in the infield were doing the same.

For what it’s worth, Coonelly’s culture change appears to be taking effect.

&#149 Ninety-seven miles per hour.

That was the speed of the fastball Tyler Yates threw past Chipper Jones to end the eighth inning.

Yeah, Yates is going to have his control issues this season, as he’s had in other years. But that kind of heat, as I chronicled earlier this spring, is a rare commodity in the Pirates’ system. The addition of Yates could pay big dividends this year. &#149 The scene at Turner Field as the first pitch was being thrown tonight reminded me of a Braves playoff game. There were camera flashes going off everywhere — and also plenty of empty seats.

And in the eighth inning, after Nate McLouth drove a 2-0 pitch into the right field seats for a three-run homer, there was a mass exodus for the parking lots.

Same old frontrunning Atlanta fans.
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Surprise! It’s Doumit at catcher

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ATLANTA — John Russell’s first surprise move as Pirates manager came in today’s season opener against Atlanta, when Ryan Doumit replaced Ronny Paulino as the starting catcher.

Russell said he made the switch because Doumit’s patient approach at the plate would be a boon against lefty Tom Glavine. Yet, Doumit insisted his approach is no different now than it’s ever been ….

Even as I was typing those words, Doumit bounced a single up the middle in the second inning on a 2-1 pitch against Glavine. Adam LaRoche, however, was held up at third base.

As I was saying, Doumit said his approach is the same. And Paulino’s career batting average against lefties is a robust .373 …

First and third, one out. Jose Bautista works the count full — hey, maybe the Bucs really are taking a more patient approach at the plate against Glavine. So much for that; Bautista struck out.

As I was saying, maybe Russell had a gut feeling that Doumit was the man for the job tonight. Or maybe it was a none-too-subtle way of delivering a message to Paulino — and the rest of the team — that no one is safe from riding the bench on any night.

&#149 Bad mistake by Nate McLouth in the first inning. After drawing a leadoff walk from Glavine, McLouth wandered too far off the bag — actually taking another step toward second as catcher Brian McCann was catching the ball. McCann fired to first and McLouth was picked off easily.

&#149 It’s only the second inning, and already I am weary of that damn Tomahawk Chop. Ever since ’92, it makes my flesh crawl.

&#149 Freddy Sanchez just fielded his first grounder of the game, an easy roller off McCann’s bat. Don’t worry about Sanchez’s sore shoulder; he had plenty of time to make a soft lob to first base. The real test will be how Sanchez feels later this week, after he’s played a few games and had to make some tricky, full-speed throws.
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Final spring thoughts

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TAMPA — As I drove to Tampa Airport this morning, I was reminded of a scene from a couple of days ago on the same stretch of highway.

The Pirates had played the New York Yankees that afternoon at the freshly renamed Steinbrenner Field (where the only thing larger than the payroll is the ego). I was riding back to Bradenton with another reporter and we heard sirens as we waited at a red light. Suddenly, a police cruiser screeched to a stop in the middle of the intersection. An officer jumped out, and began to frantically wave traffic out of the way so whatever official vehicles were behind us could pass through the red light.

It was a caravan of police cars and three tour buses — the Yankees were en route to the airport, to fly to Miami for exhibition games against the Marlins.

For this, all the traffic at a busy intersection in downtown Tampa was ground to a halt. So the Yankees could pass without having to wait through a red light like the rest of us.

Unbelieveble.

At any rate, I am relieved and excited to finally blow out of Bradenton and put another loooooong spring training behind me. The only downside: The weather looks brutal for the first two weeks of the season — rain in Atlanta, snow in Pittsburgh.

The final few roster cuts made the Pirates seemed like no-brainers to me. I can understand Sean Burnett’s fury over his demotion, but Evan Meek is younger, healthier and, frankly, a better prospect. Remember, Burnett put up great numbers last spring, was among the final cuts, then wound up wounded again at Triple-A.

Doug Mientkiewicz and Chris Gomez will be more valuable, I think, for the attitude they bring than for whatever they do with their bats and gloves.

This is not a championship roster … yet. It won’t be for years, most likely. But it doesn’t seem to be a stagnant roster anymore. The new management group has realized the past seven or eight drafts yielded precious little talent. Burnett, John Van Benschoten and Bryan Bullington are great guys, but their time as bona fide prospects is over.

The roster purging has only begun. It ought to be an interesting summer.
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Picking a roster

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TAMPA — The Pirates won’t make another big round of cuts until Saturday at the earliest, and the 25-man roster won’t be finalized until a day or two before the season begins.

But even at this point, I don’t think it’s too difficult to project who will break camp with the team after the March 29 Grapefruit League finale. I’ll take it a step further and predict the Opening Day lineup:

Nate McLouth, cf
Jack Wilson, ss
Freddy Sanchez, 2b
Adam LaRoche, 1b
Jason Bay, lf
Xavier Nady, rf
Jose Bautista, cf
Ronny Paulino, c
Tom Gorzelanny

The rest of the starting rotation: Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, Matt Morris, Zach Duke

Bench: Doug Mientkiewicz, Chris Gomez, Ryan Doumit, Luis Rivas, Kevin Thompson

Bullpen: Matt Capps, x-John Grabow, x-Damaso Marte, x-Sean Burnett, Byung-Hyun Kim, Franquelis Osoria, Evan Meek

The Rivas-Josh Wilson decision may be the toughest to make. Wilson is out of minor league options, so the Pirates likely will lose him through waivers if they try to send him to Triple-A. Rivas’ career has been on a downward spiral the past few years, but he’s wowed management with his glovework and is getting on base like crazy.

Doumit would be the backup catcher, but not in the same invisible way that Humberto Cota was the backup. Expect Doumit to get 70 or more starts behind the plate

First player to get traded? Nady. He’ll be the first, but not the last.
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What a joke!

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Today is the Pirates’ lone day off during spring training. They’re back in action tomorrow and Thursday play the New York Yankees in Tampa.

But it appears the Yankees consider that game against the Pirates as a day off of sorts, too.

Comedian Billy Crystal will be in the Bombers’ lineup that day. Crystal, who has made a lot of money by basically doing the same old shtick since the early 1980s, was given permission by the Yankees and Major League Baseball to suit up. Crystal will wear uniform No. 60, as the game will be played the day before his 60th birthday.

Why is Crystal playing? Because he’s a Yankees fan and he’s a wealthy celebrity.

The Pirates are going to say all the right things about it — What a neat idea! It’s a terrific p.r. move for baseball! Wasn’t “City Slickers” a real knee-slapper?

But you’ve got to wonder if they don’t actually feel more like Pirates fan Tom Cuozzo, who today sent me this e-mail: “Do you see this as a slap in the face – (Crystal) suiting up against the Pirates? Why not the Red Sox? The Pirates are literally a joke! Where is the dignity from this ball club?”

Cuozzo is not alone. When I woke up this morning, I discovered this text message from my buddy Marty Caridi: “Who’s pitching? He should drill (Crystal) right in the back.”

Marty was joking, I’m sure. But the implication is clear: Why is it when a another team wants to make a mockery of the game, it chooses to do it against the Pirates?

You don’t have to be Billy Crystal to insert your own punch line there.
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What, me nervous?

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BRADENTON, Fla. — The two games in which Daniel Moskos has pitched so far this spring were an audition of sorts. They were a way the Pirates’ new management team and coaching staff to get an up-close look at the first-round draft pick they inherited.

Moskos tossed a 1-2-3 inning in the unofficial spring opener against Manatee Community College. A week ago, he gave up two runs on one hit and a walk against Cincinnati.

Although this is Moskos’ first time in the big league camp, he insisted he wasn’t nervous.

“One thing they’ve taught me how to do is stay within percentages,” Moskos said. “All offseason, I’ve been throwing long-toss at 60 percent, flat ground at 70 percent, bullpen at 80 percent. They’ve educated on keeping it within myself.

“There was some adrenaline rush because these are basically my first big outings. But at the same time, it’s nothing I hadn’t done before.”

Pitching coach Jeff Andrews knows better.

“He should be nervous. They’re all nervous,” Andrews said. “But did the nervousness affect his performance? No. When the nervousness doesn’t affect how they throw, you say, ‘OK, he’s a good one.’

“Daniel is going to look back, hopefully after a really long career, and say, ‘Gosh, remember how goofy I was? How excited I was? How happy I was to be here?’ That’s what baseball memories are made of.”

Then again, in another day or two, Moskos also will be a memory around Pirates camp — he’ll likely be among the first group of players sent down to minor league camp. The cuts are expected to be announced tomorrow or Monday.
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Lights out

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Last night was supposed to mark the first night game in the 85-year history of McKechnie Field. But the game was washed out by a line of lightning storms and a tornado watch.

Good times!

The evening was eerily similar to circumstances we’ve all experienced the past few years at PNC Park. The grounds crew rolled the tarp over the field during batting practice, when radar showed the storm was still miles away. The first pitch was supposed to be thrown at 7:05 p.m., but we were in a “rain” delay, even though there wasn’t a drop of rain falling. The game was on hold, but the concession stands were open. After nearly an hour’s wait, they shot of what was supposed to be a post-game fireworks display, pacifying the crowd. Finally, the storm arrived and everybody went home.

The only thing missing was a bobbleheads giveaway.

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– Rob Biertempfel