Monroe lowers leg, boosts power

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Craig Monroe’s homer this afternoon smacked about a third of the way up the huge batter’s eye in center field.

A monster shot.

“It felt good,” Monroe said, with a satisfied smile. “I’m getting there. I’m still getting used to not having the big leg kick, but it’s definitely feeling more natural.”

Throughout his career, Monroe has lifted his left leg as he prepared to hack. This spring, Monroe has worked intensely with hitting coach Don Long to take out the leg kick.

Today, Monroe’s swing was smooth — and his left foot remained planted on the ground. The result was a tape-measure shot in the fourth inning off Astros righty Felipe Paulino.

“Fortunately, he’s going from the leg kick to the normal swing,” manager John Russell said. “It’s more difficult to go (the other way). The less movement is going to help him. He’s taken to it pretty well.”

Monroe could be the right-handed power bat the Pirates need off their bench. Or, he could be that guy who last season struck out 48 times in 163 at-bats.

In 780 career games, Monroe has 112 homers … and 547 whiffs.

“We want him to drive the ball when he has the opportunity,” Russell said. “We’ll see how his swing progresses. The strikeouts came with the leg kick, so we’ll see how it plays out.

“The more he does it, the more comfortable he gets with it. Hopefully, the strikeouts will come down.”

Monroe is a non-roster invitee to camp. If he makes the team as a backup outfielder, the Pirates would have to clear space on the 40-man roster.

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Bixler busy in Bucs’ victory

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Shortstop Brian Bixler had his hands full today in the Pirates’ 6-5 victory against the Astros. Bixler had five assists in six innings, and had a hand in six of the first nine putouts of the game.

“That’s what you get with sinkerballers,” lefty pitcher Paul Maholm said. “Just ask Jack (Wilson). He gets tired of us. But I always tell Jack that he gets on SportsCenter because of us.”

There was a downside: for the second straight game, Bixler made a costly error. Thursday, he booted a grounder and it led to two runs. Today, he threw a ball into center field, allowing Hunter Pence to reach first base and Kazuo Matsui to go to third. Matsui scored on Lance Berkman’s sacrifice fly.

• Sometimes, speed trumps a good pitching plan. In Andrew McCutchen’s first at-bat, Brian Moehler worked down and away, down and away, down and away. On an 0-2 count, McCutchen reached out and tapped a slow roller up the middle.

Shortstop Miguel Tejada got to the ball in time, but his hurried throw short-hopped away from Berkman. McCutchen was safe on the error.

With two outs, McCutchen swiped second. But Adam LaRoche struck out, ending the inning.

• You want speed at the top of the order? You’ve got it. Nyjer Morgan hit leadoff and played center field. McCutchen started in left field and batted second. The speed will go deeper on days when Nate McLouth is in the lineup. (McLouth did not make the two-hour bus trip to Kissimmee.)

• During batting practice, Brandon Moss cracked up his teammates by jitterbugging and juking to the music on the public address system. Moss’ high energy didn’t stop once the game began. He swatted a one-strike pitch from Moehler over the right field wall to give the Pirates a 1-0 lead.

• Bombs away! Moss’ blast was the first of four Pirates homers. Craig Monroe hit a deep blast to center and Robinzon Diaz also had a solo shot. Jeff Salazar hit a two-run homer in the seventh inning.

• Salazar made the day’s best catch. He tracked down Jason Michaels’ deep fly ball, then spun off the wall in left field.

• In his second plate appearance, McCutchen drew an unusual walk. With a 3-0 count, pitcher Felipe Paulino touched his mouth with his fingers while on the mound. By rule, that’s a ball, which sent McCutchen to first base.

• Jimmy Barthmaier will start today against the Detroit Tigers. Chris Bootcheck, Sean Burnett and Tyler Yates also are slated to pitch.

• Yeah, it’s early, but … Pirates starters are yet to allow an earned run.

“Don’t jinx us,” Maholm said, grinning.

Will the first starter to allow a run have to buy a round of golf for the other guys?

“No, there’s no penalty,” Maholm said. “It’ll happen.”

• Two former Pirates bench players — Michaels and Matt Kata — are in camp with the Astros. Kata hit an RBI triple off Jesse Chavez.

• Just as at Minute Maid Park, “Deep in the Heart of Texas” is played during the seventh-inning stretch at Osceola County Stadium. It’s weird, clapping along to that song and seeing palm trees sway beyond the right field wall.

• Is the economy so bad folks can’t afford cheapie spring training tickets? Today’s crowd was 2,717. The two games at McKechnie Field drew 3,391 and 2,994.

The only full house the Pirates have seen so far was at the Red Sox facility in Fort Myers, which had a standing-room crowd of 7,286.

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Hinske may be out up to a week

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Eric Hinske doesn’t expect to miss more than a week with a bruise on his left ribcage.

Hinske sustained the injury Wednesday when he crashed into the outfield wall. He played yesterday, but when he took batting practice this morning, his ribs were too sore to go on.

“I was in the cage, thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ ” Hinske said. “I felt OK yesterday, but a lot worse today.”

Hinske was scratched from the lineup and replaced at designated hitter by Pedro Alvarez. Making his first start this spring, Alvarez went 1 for 3.

Since it’s so early in spring training, the Pirates have time to be ultra-cautious with Hinske. “It shouldn’t be too long,” manager John Russell said. “It could be a day or two or three or four. I don’t want (the injury) to linger.”

• Tom Gorzelanny pitched two scoreless innings in the 5-2 loss against the Braves. “It felt good. I felt strong out there,” Gorzelanny said. “I want to prove to everybody that I do belong in this rotation and on this team.”

Russell described Gorzo’s outing as “OK.” The left walked the first two batters of the second inning and then went 3-2 on Matt Diaz, but got a double play to escape the jam.

• Gorzo adjusted his physique — he’s about 20 pounds slimmer — and his attitude this offseason. He was usually surly in 2008, when he won just six games and spent the bulk of the summer in the minors. But so far this spring, Gorzelanny’s been upbeat, approachable and friendly in the clubhouse and with the media.

• The Pirates’ lone RBI came from Neil Walker, who doubled home Jose Tabata in the ninth inning. In the eighth, Shelby Ford singled, went to third on Jason Jaramillo’s single and scored on a wild pitch.

• Zach Duke pitched one inning and gave up a solo homer to Greg Norton. Duke is scheduled to work two innings Monday against the Reds.

• Saturday, Paul Maholm will work the first two innings against the Houston. Jeff Karstens, Matt Capps, Jesse Chavez and Craig Hansen also will pitch. Brian Moehler will start for the Astros.

• Among those who will not make the loooooong bus ride tomorrow to Kissimmee: Ryan Doumit, Jaramillo, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez and Nate McLouth. Hinske already was slated to skip the trip before his rib injury flared up.

• Today was Chipper Jones’ first game in Bradenton since 1990, when he was playing for the Braves’ rookie ball team. Jones told Braves beat writers he made the two-hour trip so he could check in with his hunting and golf buddy, Adam LaRoche. “If that’s true, I’m touched,” LaRoche said, grinning. “But I don’t believe him.”

• Capps, talking about working with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan: “We’re not trying to re-invent the game. When things start to go bad, he says, ‘OK, let’s simplify it.’ I like that. He does have kind of a calming sense to him, with all the success he’s had in the past. You know what he’s talking about.”

• Among the sights today at McKechnie Field was pitcher Virgil Vasquez wearing a warmup shirt with the message, “No, I don’t use steroids. But thanks for asking” written on the back. Overheard during a pregame conversation among a group of Bradenton Boosters, the senior citizen volunteers who keep the ballpark running: “Are the Hooters girls here yet?”

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Alvarez starts at DH today

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates’ top draft pick last year, will make his first start of spring training today against the Braves.

Alvarez will replace designated hitter Eric Hinske, who was a late scratch with a bruised left ribcage. Hinske was injured Wednesday when he ran into the outfield wall during the game against the Phillies.

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Alvarez makes contact

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Pedro Alvarez’s first hit in Pirates spring training camp was a biggie — an RBI double in the ninth inning today against Boston. Alvarez wound up scoring the winning run in the Pirates’ 3-2 decision.

Yesterday against the Phillies, Alvarez struck out on three pitches — all offspeed stuff in the dirt. Facing Red Sox right-hander Richie Lentz, Alvarez was hoping to make solid contact.

“I was just trying to get a good piece of the ball and actually get a ball I can hit this time,” Alvarez said, smiling.

Alvarez lined a double which hopped up against the left-field wall. Neil Walker scored.

“It was nice to see Pedro relax,” manager John Russell said. “Yesterday was not the way you want to start. He had a smile on his face today, and he should. It was a big hit in a big situation. He drove the ball.”

• Walker and Jose Tabata began the ninth inning with back-to-back walks. “Tabata had a great at-bat, and that set the tone for the inning,” Russell said.

• Starter Ian Snell allowed two unearned runs in two innings. He yielded two hits and struck out three.

“He had the two walks, but he wasn’t spraying,” Russell said. “He was just missing. He threw some pitches down that were borderline that didn’t go his way. We kicked the ball behind him and cost him 12 pitches and two runs; (otherwise) it would have been a real solid outing for him. It’s something for him to build off.”

• Shortstop Brian Bixler’s two-out error allowed the Sox to load the bases. Jeff Bailey followed with a bloop single — the ball plopped a couple of feet in front of hard-charging center fielder Andrew McCutchen — which scored two runs.

• Snell leaves Sunday to begin workouts for the World Baseball Classic. He’ll be on a strict pitch count during the tournament.

“I’m staying on the same program,” Snell said. “I’ll keep doing everything we’ve been doing here. I’ve already talked with (pitching coach Joe) Kerrigan, Russell and (GM Neal) Huntington. I told them I wasn’t going to change anything.”

• Starting in the second inning, five Pirates pitchers — Snell, Ross Ohlendorf, Jimmy Barthmaier, Denny Bautista and Sean Burnett — combined to retire 18 straight batters.

“It’s early, but it’s good to see,” Russell said. “The command is what I’m liking right now. Ohlendorf did a good job. Bautista, I was very impressed with his command. Barthmaier threw the ball well.

“I think the biggest thing is, they’re using both sides, they’re using the changeups and they’re attacking the zone early. There were some quick two outs and then 2-0 on the next hitter, which we will address tomorrow. For the most part, all our guys attacked the zone real well today.”

• Andy LaRoche started at third base and went 1 for 2. Shelby Ford started at second and went 1 for 2 with a stolen base.

• Huntington denied reports the Pirates never offered a contract to Doug Mientkiewicz, who today signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers.

“We had ongoing dialogue with Doug Mientkiewicz and his (agent) about coming to spring training with the Pirates,” Huntington said. “We offered Doug a minor league contract with a chance to come to major league spring training to make our club and showcase himself for other clubs. Doug chose the Dodgers because he felt he had a better chance to make that club.”

• Tom Gorzelanny will pitch the first two innings Friday against Atlanta. Jason Davis, Zach Duke, Daniel McCutchen and Chris Bootcheck also are slated to pitch. Kenshin Kawakami will start for the Braves.

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Capps a little rusty

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BRADENTON, Fla. — It was a somewhat un-Capps-like performance this afternoon by the Pirates’ closer.

Matt Capps pitched the second inning of the 8-2 victory against the Phillies. The game was scoreless when Capps entered; Chris Bootcheck tossed a 1-2-3 first inning.

First batter, Ryan Howard. Strikeout swinging.

The next three batters were aging vets Geoff Jenkins and Matt Stairs and Phils star prospect Jason Donald, who’s never played a day in the majors.

Walk, walk, walk. Bases loaded.

Out came pitching coach Joe Kerrigan to deliver a simple message.

“He told me, turn the page,” Capps said. “OK, forget about it. You’ve walked a couple guys. So what? Forget about it and throw the ball over the plate.”

Capps did. Eric Bruntlett grounded into an inning-ending, 5-4-3 double play.

“Just a little rusty,” said Capps, who added his shoulder feels fine after last year’s bout of bursitis. “You can throw bullpens and live batting practice as much as you want, but until you get in a game environment it’s always a little bit different. It’s nice to get that first one out of the way and get through it without too much damage.”

Then again, the second inning was relatively unfamiliar ground to Capps, who’s used to ninth-inning pressure situations. But he has been there a time or two before.

Capps originally was groomed as a starter, although that plan met with disastrous results.

“I didn’t make it to the second inning as a starter very often,” Capps said, laughing. “It’s been a while. I don’t think ever in my big league career have I thrown in the second inning.”

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Ford, Veal step up

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Shelby Ford and Donnie Veal, two players not expected to play prominent roles with the Pirates this season, stepped up Wednesday in the 8-2 rout of the Phillies.

Ford smacked a three-run, pinch-hit homer. A third-round draft pick in 2006, Ford opened enough eyes last season to earn a non-roster invite to spring training. He’ll probably start the year with Double-A Altoona.

Veal tossed a scoreless inning to notch the victory. The Pirates plucked the lefty from the Cubs in the Rule 5 draft. If he sticks with the team, Veal will work out of the bullpen, thought his future is likely as a starter.

• Pedro Alvarez’s first at-bat was not memorable. In the seventh inning, facing lefty Jake Woods, Alvarez struck out on a half-swing on a pitch in the dirt. How bad was the pitch? It rolled away from catcher Lou Marson for a wild pitch.

• Manager John Russell praised the solid (albeit brief) outing by Chris Bootcheck, who tossed a 1-2-3 first inning. Bootcheck made good use of his changeup, a pitch management has stressed since last year.

“I think it’s key pitch for a majority of our pitchers,” Russell said. “It’s been a big emphasis with Joe (Kerrigan, pitching coach) since spring training starter. I was happy to see that (Jesse) Chavez, after getting three jam shots, started going to his changeup.”

• Chavez gave up a run in the ninth inning on consecutive singles by Jeremy Slayden, Greg Dobbs and John Mayberry. Chavez got out of the jam by striking out Andy Tracy and Marcus Giles and getting Anthony Hewitt to hit a comebacker to the mound.

• This morning, Phil Dumatrait (shoulder) threw another side session: 36 pitches, a mix of fastballs, curves and changes. Dumatrait will throw again Saturday in the bullpen, then might be ready to step up his throwing program.

• Position players who will not make the two-hour bus ride to Fort Myers tomorrow for the Red Sox game: Ryan Doumit, Adam LaRoche, Luis Cruz, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Ramon Vazquez, Nate McLouth and Miguel Perez.

• Ian Snell, Ross Ohlendorf, Jimmy Barthmaier, Denny Bautista and Sean Burnett are slated to pitch against Boston.

• Catcher Robinzon Diaz replaced Doumit midway through today’s game and went 1 for 2 with a run scored. Jason Jaramillo will be behind the plate against the Red Sox.

• Dept. of Corrections: I missed a name last night when scanning for Pirates on the list of WBC players. Gift Ngoepe will play for South Africa, meaning the Pirates have nine players on the WBC rosters. Also, coach Luis Dorante will be the bullpen coach for Venezuela.

• I was standing outside the clubhouse at McKechnie Field this morning, talking on my phone, when Craig Monroe walked past. Monroe stopped, tapped me on the shoulder and, with a quizzical look, pointed at my forehead.

I knew what he was getting at, and explained it’s Ash Wednesday. “Oh,” Monroe said, with an honest smile. “Sorry, didn’t know. Just trying to help.”

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Catchers’ battle begins

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Catcher Ryan Doumit will not make the trip Thursday to Fort Myers for the game against the Boston Red Sox. That means the battle between Robinzon Diaz and Jason Jaramillo for the backup job is about to begin in earnest.

• Ronny Paulino, who once was considered the Pirates’ long-term solution at catcher but quickly fell out of favor last season, is at McKechnie Field today, wearing a Phillies uniform. In December, the team swapped him to Philadelphia for Jaramillo.

“I was excited when I heard (about the trade) because I was leaving to go to a team that wanted me,” Paulino said. “So far things have been great. I think I have a really good chance here to show I belong.”

Paulino is vying with Carlos Ruiz to be the bench guy behind starter Chris Coste.

• Pete Mackanin is in his first year as the Phillies’ bench coach. Mackanin was the Pirates’ interim manager for a handful of games after Lloyd McClendon was fired in 2005.

• Craig Monroe, who will be featured in tomorrow’s Trib, is the designated hitter today — not that he was happy about it.

“Ugh,” Monroe said when asked about being the DH. “It’s too hard to do. It’s hard to stay in the game, hard to feel like you’ve contributed. I like playing defense. Even if I don’t get a hit, I can still do something to help us win the game.

“Some guys can do that job for a long time and be OK with it. Not me.”

• Thursday’s pitchers against Boston will be Ian Snell (two innings), Ross Ohlendorf (two innings) and Jimmy Barthmaier (one inning). The Red Sox will start lefty Jon Lester. It’s Snell’s only tune-up with the Pirates before leaving for the World Baseball Classic.

• There are three Pirates farmhands on Baseball America’s list of the top 100 prospects in the game. Pedro Alvarez is No. 12, Andrew McCutchen is No. 33 and Jose Tabata is No. 75.

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Game 1 lineup

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BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates’ lineup for this afternoon’s Grapefruit League opener against the Phillies:

1. Nyjer Morgan lf, 2. Freddy Sanchez 2b, 3. Nate McLouth cf, 4. Ryan Doumit c, 5. Adam LaRoche 1b, 6. Craig Monroe dh, 7. Brandon Moss rf, 8. Ramon Vazquez 3b, 9. Jack Wilson ss.

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Eight named to WBC teams

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Eight Pirates players — only two from the major-league roster — were chosen for the World Baseball Classic final rosters.

Infielder Ramon Vazquez and right-hander Ian Snell will play for Puerto Rico. Others selected were Dave Davidson (Canada), Ray Chang (China), Eliecer Navarro (Panama), Chi-Hung Cheng (Chinese Taipei), Josh Hill (Australia) and Paul Mildren (Australia).

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