Did Karstens save his worst for last?

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Either way, Jeff Karstens figures he’s gonna pitch Sunday at Pirate City.

If Karstens is named the Pirates’ No. 5 starter — that decision likely will be announced tomorrow morning — he’ll pitch in a minor league game Sunday to stay on track for his season debut April 10 in Cincinnati.

If Karstens is beaten out by Virgil Vasquez, Karstens will pitch Sunday for Triple-A Indianapolis. Karstens does not expect to be in the Pirates’ bullpen if he loses the battle for the starter’s job.

“That’s the last thing on my mind right now after the way I pitched today,” Karstens said.

Karstens went 5 2/3 innings today in the Pirates’ 12-8 loss against the Twins. The right-hander allowed five runs on 10 hits, walked two, stuck out two and threw a wild pitch.

“He had no rhythm. He was keeping everything up. The ball was flat,” manager John Russell said.

Karstens also nicked a batter with a pitch. He said it was the first time he’d hit a batter in three years.

“It’s all a blur,” Karstens said. “That’s the way things go sometimes and, unfortunately, it was my day to have it. I’ve got to be better than that. We’ll see what happens.”

Early in the game, the only pitch Karstens could get over the plate was his fastball. The Twins sat on it, and teed off. In the third inning, Jason Kubel mashed a long, two-run homer to right field. Then the Twins rapped out three straight singles to make it 5-2.

• Karstens said he had a dream the other night about the fifth starter’s job. “Virgil and I were sitting there, waiting for them to tell us, and …”

Yes? What happened? “I don’t know,” Karstens said. “I woke up.”

• Vasquez last pitched Friday, when he gave up three runs in 5 2/3 innings against the Blue Jays. He’ll pitch again Thursday, most likely in a minor league game.

• If nothing else, at least Karstens has his health. No, really. He began last season on the DL with elbow tendinitis. He also missed time one year with a broken leg at the end of spring training.

“Out of four or five (spring trainings), I’ve been able to break camp … once,” Karstens said. “It’s always a positive … maybe the only positive I have right now.”

# Jack Wilson ripped his first homer of the spring, a two-run shot in the third inning off Nick Blackburn.

• Matt Capps also had a forgettable outing. The closer worked one-third of an inning, and yielded four runs on four hits and one walk.

• Joe Frisaro of mlb.com speculated Sean Burnett could fill the Marlins’ need for a lefty reliever via trade.

• Remember Jonathan Albaladejo? In 2001, he asked the Pirates to release him when it was obvious he did not figure in the team’s plans.

Now, he’s close to locking up a bullpen job with the New York Yankees. Oops, d’ya think somebody in the Pirates’ front office made an evaluation boo-boo a few years ago?

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Meek has bronchitis

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — In addition to a nasty stomach bug, reliever Evan Meek is fighting bronchitis. There’s no indication yet when he’ll be able to get back on the mound and whether this will impact his chances of making the 25-man roster.

• Third baseman Andy LaRoche also has a queasy stomach and did not make the trip here today for the game against the Twins.

• I spent a few minutes last night chatting with Bart Given, a former assistant GM in Toronto. Given has started a blog called Inside the Majors which has a wealth of inside-the-game poop. You’d do well to check it out and bookmark it.

• Another invaluable baseball resource for beat writers and fans alike is Baseball Prospectus. Well worth the annual subscription.

• Lineups for today’s game:

PIRATES — 1. Nyjer Morgan lf, 2. Freddy Sanchez 2b, 3. Nate McLouth, 4. Eric Hinske dh, 5. Adam LaRoche 1b, 6. Brandon Moss rf, 7. Ramon Vazquez 3b, 8. Jack Wilson ss, 9. Jason Jaramilo c. Jeff Karstens will pitch.

TWINS — 1. Denard Span cf, 2. Matt Tolbert ss, 3. Brendan Harris 2b, 4. Jason Kubel lf, 5. Brian Buscher 3b, 6. Mike Redmond c, 7. Matt Moses dh, 8. Brock Peterson 1b, 9. Chris Parmalee rf. Nick Blackburn will pitch. First baseman Justin Morneau was a late scratch.

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Jaramillo settles in at the plate

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Jason Jaramillo whacked a run-scoring single up the middle with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, lifting the Pirates past the Reds, 3-2.

Since being told Saturday he’d won the backup catcher job, Jaramillo has gone 3 for 8. After looking out of sorts at the plate for much of the spring, he appears to be finding his batting stroke.

“He’s probably a lot more relaxed now that he knows he’s going north with us,” manager John Russell said. “I’m sure that’s a factor.”

• The Pirates acquired lefty Shawn Nottingham from the Indians for a minor league player to be named later. Nottingham, 24, likely will begin the season with Double-A Altoona. Last season, he went 0-2 with a 7.09 ERA in 19 relief appearances with Double-A Akron.

• One name to keep in the back of your head the next few days is Robert Andino. The infielder is out of minor league options, and the Florida Marlins might be tempted to trade him if he doesn’t make their major league roster out of spring training.

At the winter meetings, Andino’s name came up when Pirates talked with the Marlins about a trade involving catcher Ronny Paulino. That deal never materialized, as Paulino was sent to the Phillies. However, the Marlins finally did get Paulino last weekend.

Andino, 24, was the Marlins’ second-round pick in 2002. Florida took him on the advice of scout Marc DelPiano, who in December was hired as a special assistant to Pirates GM Neal Huntington.

Perry Hill, the Pirates’ infield coach, tutored Andino when Hill was on the Marlins’ coaching staff.

Andino has played in the majors in each of the past four seasons, but has appeared in a total of just 79 games.

Last season, Andino hit .206 (13 for 63) with two homers and nine RBI. He is more highly regarded for his defense than his offense — Andino has a subpar .250 career on-base percentage.

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GM: McCutchen, Bixler ‘close’ to majors

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Andrew McCutchen is closer to the major leagues than general manager Neal Huntington expected. Yet, that did not prevent the Pirates from sending McCutchen and infielder Brian Bixler back to the minors this morning.

“Both players arguably deserve to be on a major league team,” Huntington said. “Both players have very strong springs. But at the same time, both players need to go get some work (in the minors).”

• The departure of Bixler, combined with Andy Phillips’ late start due to a sore back, means Luis Cruz almost certainly has locked up the final bench job. “Luis has the inside track at this time, but it’s not a done deal,” Huntington said.

• The Pirates still have not announced whether Jeff Karstens or Virgil Vasquez is the fifth starter. But every indication is, Karstens is the man.

Vasquez is not listed among the probable starters for the last six Grapefruit League games. Karstens will start Tuesday against the Twins. After that, it’s Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Ross Ohlendorf.

• Kevin Slowey of Upper St. Clair will start Saturday for the Twins in the spring training finale against the Pirates.

• Maholm will pitch Opening Day in St. Louis. Adam Wainwright will start for the Cardinals. The rest of the Cards’ rotation in that series: Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer and Chris Carpenter.

• Looking ahead to the series April 10-12 in Cincinnati, the Reds are expected to start Johnny Cueto, Micah Owings and Aaron Harang.

• If the Pirates’ rotation holds true and there are no rainouts in the opening week, Duke should be in line to start the Home Opener April 13 against the Astros.

• Phil Dumatrait (shoulder) threw two innings Saturday in a minor league game — his first significant action this spring — and reported no flare-ups of pain today. “Excellent,” Dumatrait said. “It was encouraging to get out there. It’s good to finally see some light at the end of the tunnel with this.”

Dumatrait will being the season on the disabled list and will stay here for extended spring training until he’s ready to go longer than five innings. “We’ll keep stretching him out,” Huntington said. “At best, he’s a month away (from rejoining the Pirates), and that’s if everything goes extremely well. He’s probably closer to six weeks away.”

• Evan Meek (shoulder) was supposed to pitch a couple of innings today, but has a stomach bug. Sitting at his locker this morning, Meek looked pretty queasy, so there’s not a good chance he’ll throw today. Meek has not pitched since March 20.

• Lineups for today’s game:

Reds — 1. Willy Taveras cf, 2. Chris Dickerson lf, 3. Joey Votto 1b, 4. Brandon Phillips 2b, 5. Jay Bruce rf, 6. Jeff Keppinger 3b, 7. Paul Janish ss, 8. Ryan Hanigan c, 9. Johnny Cueto rhp.

Pirates — 1. Nate McLouth cf, 2. Freddy Sanchez 2b, 3. Ryan Doumit c, 4. Eric Hinske rf, 5. Adam LaRoche 1b, 6. Craig Monroe lf, 7. Ramon Vazquez 3b, 8. Jack Wilson ss, 9. Ross Ohlendorf rhp.

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Duke stumbles, but stays on track

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TAMPA — After cruising through much of spring training, today Zach Duke finally struggled.

Duke worked 3 1/3 innings and allowed eight runs on nine hits. He walked three and struck out one.

“It was a battle, it seemed, every at-bat,” Duke said. “The main thing is I got my work in and nothing’s hurt.”

Manager John Russell found some bright spots.

“He’s been throwing the ball very well all spring,” Russell said. “He didn’t really have his command. His sinker away was jumping at the plate just a little bit more. I still like the way he was throwing inside. His offspeed pitches looked good.”

• The Yankees took an 8-2 lead with a seven-run fourth inning. The Pirates countered with six runs, including back-to-back homers by Ryan Doumit (a three-run shot) and Adam LaRoche, off A.J. Burnett in the fifth inning.

“It would’ve been easy to get down after they scored seven,” Russell said. “We came right back. That was nice.”

Russell said Doumit, who’s batting .300, is starting to come around at the plate.

“Early in spring, he worked a lot on his right-handed swing,” Russell said. “He knew his left-handed swing would come around, and it’s starting to do that now.”

Eric Hinske hit a solo homer in the second inning.

• Craig Hansen worked two scoreless innings, lowering his spring ERA to 3.65. He’s been scored upon just once in 12 outings.

“Today was better,” Russell said. “His command was better. That’s a good sign for him. Joe (Kerrigan, pitching coach) noticed that out of his slide step his mechanics were better, so we used it a lot with men on base. We might start using it more often. He was able to attack the zone.”

• The only position players who did not make the trip were Jack Wilson (knee), Craig Monroe and Ramon Vazquez.

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McCutchen still a good bet for Triple-A

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TAMPA — GM Neal Huntington today poured more cold water on speculation that outfielder Andrew McCutchen will be with the team on Opening Day.

“Andrew came in with the motivation to try to open some eyes and make it very tough to send him out, and he’s done that,” Huntington said. “There’s still development that remains (to be done).”

Huntington said McCutchen is the Pirates’ “best defensive outfielder” but still must improve his offensive skills. McCutchen went 5 for 5 Saturday, including a solo homer, boosting his batting average to .308. His on-base plus slugging percentage is a healthy .969 and he leads the team with 12 walks.

• Huntington stressed Nyjer Morgan has not yet played his way out of the starting job in left field.

“Nyjer’s done what we’ve asked of him; he just hasn’t gotten hits,” Huntington said. “Has he expanded the zone too much? Yes, but that’s his personality. He’s aggressive. He’s high-energy. What he did in August and September showed he can perform in the big league level. To take that away from him would be tough.”

• Lefty reliever Donnie Veal also has struggled at times this spring, yet still seems a lock to make the team.

“Donnie’s had an awful lot of good outings,” Huntington said. “He’s had two very, very tough outings. If he’s in a big league environment, he doesn’t have those outings. He walks two hitters and he’s out of the game. In spring training, you’re trying to get him to work through some things.”

Huntington pointed to a game against the Red Sox, when Veal went 3-0 against Jason Varitek with the bases loaded.

“The three best fastballs he threw that day, if not in spring training, were the 3-0 pitch, the 3-1 pitch and the 3-2 pitch,” Huntington said. “He ended up walking him, but he didn’t back off.”

Veal’s breaking ball is “a work in progress,” according to Huntington and the changeup is so-so.

“We’ve taken a man out of Double-A, changed his delivery and arm action, and tried to get him to throw a lot of strikes,” Huntington said. “We’ve seen a left-hander who throws up to 95 mph, we’ve seen a power breaking ball, we’ve seen an interesting changeup. We’ve also seen him walk four guys in an inning.

“He’s still in the hunt, for sure. We still like the upside. We do feel Donnie Veal is better equipped to handle a major league situation right now than Evan (Meek) was a year ago. It would be a tough decision to not put him on the club.”

• Infielder Andy Phillips’ sore back, which has kept him out of action since March 7, has all but killed his chances of making the Opening Day roster.

“It’s going to be awfully tough,” Huntington said.

“Everybody focuses on April 6, and what is the Opening Day lineup. Who’s with us on April 6 might be different on May 6 or June 6 — it will be different. There’s a ton on emphasis, probably too much, placed on who’s going to be on our club April 6. As we look at our catcher, our infield, our starting rotation, our bullpen, our outfield, we might have a different structure as we go forward.”

In other words, expect Phillips to be offered a spot at Triple-A Indianapolis, with a promise that he’ll be in the mix for a callup as soon as it’s needed.

That means either Brian Bixler, who started today at shortstop in Jack Wilson’s absence, or Luis Cruz will make the team.

• The Pirates have pulled their contract offer to free-agent lefty reliever Will Ohman.

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Wilson wants to renegotiate contract

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TAMPA — In a bid to remain in Pittsburgh, Jack Wilson has approached the Pirates about renegotiating the option year on his contract.

Early this morning, Wilson confirmed that he asked his agent to open talks with the Pirates about his contract.

Before the 2006 season, Wilson signed a four-year, $24.4 million deal.

The team option for 2010 is worth $8.4 million or a $500,000 buyout. Wilson said he would be willing to accept a lower salary in order to remain with the Pirates.

“What we have going here … this is probably the best team I’ve been around,” said Wilson, who will make $7.25 million this season. “There’s a future here.”

Before spring training began, management indicated to Wilson it is not willing to pick up his option. The Pirates tried to trade Wilson the past two years at the deadline, and shopped him again this past offseason.

Wilson was scratched from the lineup for today’s game against the Yankees. His knee still is swollen after he fouled a ball off it Friday during a minor league game.

• Left-hander Kyle Bloom, a Rule 5 pick, was returned to the Pirates from the Tigers. Bloom pitched just 5 1/3 innings this spring for Detroit, allowed six hits and posted an 8.44 ERA.

• Lineups for today’s game — which, despite overcast skies, is set to begin on time:

Pirates — 1. Nyjer Morgan lf, 2. Freddy Sanchez 2b, 3. Nate McLouth cf, 4. Ryan Doumit c, 5. Adam LaRoche 1b, 6. Eric Hinske dh, 7. Brandon Moss rf, 8. Andy LaRoche 3b, Brian Bixler ss. Zach Duke will pitch.

Yankees — 1. Derek Jeter ss, 2. Johnny Damon lf, 3. Nick Swisher 1b, 4. Hideki Matsui dh, 5. Jorge Posada c. 6. Robinson Cano 2b, 7. Xavier Nady rf, 8. Ramiro Pena 3b, 9. Brett Gardner cf. A.J. Burnett will pitch.

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Snell to Howard: ‘Who’s your daddy?’

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Ian Snell heard the sound of the ball meeting Ryan Howard’s bat, and immediately feared the worst.

“I thought it was World War III or something,” Snell said. “It was a loud crack.”

Howard’s home run sailed over the batter’s eye in center field — a blast of 500 feet or more.

“That was a freaking bomb,” Snell said. “I’ve never given up one that went that far. Not even (Albert) Pujols hit one like that, and he hit three off me in one game.”

Howard downplayed his titanic clout, smiling and suggesting the ball’s flight was aided by the 30 mph wind.

“I just got a good pitch and hit it,” Howard said. “I got it up and it’s kind of windy out there today. It kept carrying.”

But the smile on Howard’s face said that he knew he’d really mashed one.

“We came up in the minors together so we kind of have our little thing when we face each other,” Howard said. “We have to try to keep from laughing. But we get competitive because we’re pretty good friends. It’s different, facing each other.”

Snell pitched six innings. He struck out the final batter he faced — Howard.

“I’m still his daddy,” Snell said, grinning.

• GM Neal Huntington today described the bullpen situation as “really unstable.” The Pirates have an offer on the table for free-agent lefty Will Ohman, who reportedly is seeking $2 million-plus a year.

However, Huntington said it is not imperative to bring in a reliever from outside the club to fix the bullpen.

“It’s not imperative, but we’ll continue to look,” Huntington said. “We don’t think we have to go get somebody. The relievers who break with us April 6 are there Opening Day may not be there at the end of the year. We have some options and depth this year.

“We’ve seen that the options we have, the depth we have, is more than capable of getting major league hitters out. We just need to do it on a consistent basis. We have some young relievers who’ve tried to do too much at times, and they’ve also done a great job at times.

• Snell has been battling a blister on the instep of his right foot. “It’s still red and it still bothers me,” Snell said. “I’m wearing a pad on it. As long as I wear the pad, it’s fine.”

• Shortstop Jack Wilson fouled a ball off the inside of his left knee yesterday in a minor league game. Wilson was not in the lineup today against the Phillies, but his injury is not believed to be serious.

• The Pirates have 10 saves, tops among Grapefruit League teams.

• Robinzon Diaz today was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis, despite batting .423 this spring. Huntington did not rule out calling up Diaz later this season if newly anointed backup Jason Jaramillo struggles.

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Nutting pleased with ticket sales pace

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Pirates owner Bob Nutting said ticket sales have not taken a serious hit because of the sluggish national economy.

“Our season ticket renewal rate is slightly higher than it was last year,” Nutting said Saturday. “We’re very pleased with the support we’re getting from the fans.”

Nutting added that sales of new season-ticket plans “are doing extremely well.”

Nutting did not divulge specific sales figures.

Chevrolet recently pulled its annual sponsorship, which was worth at least $500,000 when PNC Park opened in 2001.

When asked if the Pirates have made up the loss, Nutting said only that a plan is in place to recoup the lost corporate funding.

“We need to make up for the big sponsors with a number of smaller ones,” Nutting said.

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Jaramillo makes the cut

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Jason Jaramillo will be the backup catcher, as Robinzon Diaz this morning was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis.

Steve Pearce also was optioned to Indy. Infielder Anderson Machado was reassigned to minor league camp.

Jaramillo, 26, finally stuck with a big league club in his fourth spring training attempt. Jaramillo teared up a bit as he talked about winning the job.

“It wasn’t the battle,” Jaramillo said. “It was more me wanting to get off the pressure on myself to make a good impression. I’m ecstatic right now, to say the least.”

GM Neal Huntington said Jaramillo’s superior defensive skills was the deciding factor.

• Reliever Evan Meek (shoulder) will throw a bullpen session today, and is tentatively slated to pitch in Monday’s game against the Reds.

• Phil Dumatrait (shoulder) is scheduled to throw two innings Sunday against the Yankees. It will be his first game action this spring. “I can’t wait,” Dumatrait said.

• Lineups for this afternoon’s game:

Phillies — 1. Jimmy Rollins ss, 2. Shane Victorino cf, 3. Matt Stairs lf, 4. Ryan Howard 1b, 5. Geoff Jenkins rf, 6. Miguel Cairo 3b, 7. Marcus Giles 2b, 8. Carlos Ruiz c, 9. Jamie Moyer lhp.

Pirates — 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Brian Bixler 2b, 3. Craig Monroe rf, 4. Adam LaRoche 1b, 5. Ramon Vazquez 3b, 6. Jason Jaramillo c, 7. Jeff Salazar lf, 8. Luis Cruz ss, 9. Ian Snell rhp.

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