Offense starts to ignite

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MILWAUKEE — The Pirates are starting to hit again. Andy LaRoche has been hot since returning from a back injury, going 12 for 18 over the past four games. LaRoche goes into today’s game batting .400 and has reached back safely in all but two of the 13 games in which he’s played.

Last night, Jeff Clement came up a triple shy of hitting for the cycle. (And after watching him chug into second base for his sixth-inning double, I think it’ll be like seeing a unicorn if Clement ever gets a three-bagger.) It was Clement’s first three-hit game since Aug. 18, 2008. He’s hit safely in five of his past six starts and has homered twice in the past three games.

How about Ryan Doumit? His ninth-inning grand slam last night off Trevor Hoffman was the second of his career. Doumit, who’s not in the lineup today, is riding a seven-game hitting streak, during which he’s batting at a .435 clip (10 for 23).

Doumit’s slam keyed the Pirates’ first five-run ninth inning since April 11, 2009, against Cincinnati. Coincidentally, Doumit also whacked a grand slam in that game off Mike Lincoln.

Lineups for this afternoon’s game:

Pirates (8-12) — 1. Aki Iwamura 2b, 2. Andy LaRoche 3b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Lastings Milledge lf, 6. Jeff Clement, 7. Jason Jaramillo c, 8. Paul Maholm (1-2, 4.74) lhp, 9. Ronny Cedeno ss

Brewers (9-11) — 1. Rickie Weeks 2b, 2. Carlos Gomez cf, 3. Ryan Braun lf,4. Prince Fielder 1b, 5. Casey McGehee 3b, 6. Greg Zaun c, 7. Corey Hart rf, 8. Alcides Escobar ss, 9. Chris Narveson (1-0, 7.20) lhp

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Karstens to the rescue

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MILWAUKEE — The highlight of Jeff Karstens’ career so far with the Pirates was his start 11 days after being traded to Pittsburgh midway through the 2008 season. In his second start with his new team, Karstens took a perfect game into the eighth inning against Arizona.

Since then, Karstens’ status in the eyes of management faded fast. He began last season in the starting rotation, but was moved to the bullpen in June when Charlie Morton arrived.

In late November, Karstens, 27, was bounced from the 40-man roster when the Pirates claimed Chris Jakubauskas off waivers. Karstens began the season with Triple-A Indianapolis and went 1-2 with a 7.31 ERA.

When the Pirates needed fresh arms to make spot starts, they brought up Brian Burres and Jakubauskas. Last night, with the pitching staff still in disarray and limited options to choose from at Indy, the Pirates called for Karstens.

The right-hander responded tonight with 6.2 strong innings in the 7-3 victory against the Brewers. Karstens allowed two runs on six hits, walked four and struck out four. He played a huge role in one of the Pirates’ most significant wins this season — it snapped a seven-game losing skid and a 22-game slump at Miller Park.

“I was able to throw everything for strikes,” Karstens said. “My fastball was a little erratic, but I think maybe it benefited me a little bit, not being over the plate so much. They weren’t able just to sit on certain pitches. Just one of those nights when stuff goes well.”

Was this game a chance to prove he belongs?

“I just wanted to come here and pitch well,” Karstens said. “Whatever happens from here, happens. Come here, pitch well, help out the team.”

Karstens did not get a win, but he did make the right kind of impression on manager John Russell.

“Jeff was outstanding,” Russell said. “He kept us in the game. We really, really, really needed it. He stepped up really huge tonight. We’re proud of him.”

The reward: Karstens remains in the rotation (at least, until Ross Ohlendorf comes off the DL) and will start Sunday against the Dodgers.

“I don’t see any reason why not,” Russell said. “The kid deserves it.”

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Raynor awaits his fate

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MILWAUKEE — The Pirates hope to keep outfielder John Raynor in their farm system. Late Monday night, Raynor was designated for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot for right-hander Jeff Karstens, who was brought up from Triple-A Indy to make a spot start tonight against the Brewers.

The Pirates claimed Raynor in December’s Rule 5 draft from the Marlins. If Raynor clears waivers, Florida could ask for him back and return half of the $50,000 fee the Pirates paid to claim him. Or, the Marlins and Pirates could work out a trade which would enable Raynor to remain with Pittsburgh.

Huntington said he is willing to try to hammer out a deal, if necessary.

Raynor, in the meantime, will have a few days off while his destination is decided. The challenge is to stay in playing shape during his down time.

“I’m going to go home, keep swinging the bat and, hopefully, I’ll be ready to play — wherever that may be,” Raynor said.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Pirates (7-12) — 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Andy LaRoche 3b, 3. Ryan Church lf, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Ryan Doumit c, 6. Jeff Clement, 7. Aki Iwamura 2b, 8. (2010 debut) lhp, 9. Ronny Cedeno ss

Brewers (9-10) — 1. Rickie Weeks 2b, 2. Craig Counsell ss, 3. Ryan Braun lf,4. Prince Fielder 1b, 5. Casey McGehee 3b, 6. Jim Edmonds cf, 7. Corey Hart rf, 8. George Kottaras c, 9. Randy Wolf (2-1, 3.70) lhp

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Karstens called up, Raynor DFA’ed

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MILWAUKEE — Right-hander Jeff Karstens was selected from Triple-A Indianapolis and will make a spot start Tuesday against the Brewers. To clear a roster spot, outfielder John Raynor was designated for assignment.

“It’s not a move we wanted to make (with Raynor),” GM Neal Huntington said. “We’d like to keep John in the organization.”

Raynor was a Rule 5 pickup from the Marlins. There are a couple of hurdles which must be cleared before he could return to Florida.

First, Raynor would have to clear waivers. The Pirates have 10 days to trade him, attempt to outright him to Indianapolis (waivers) or release him.

“If he gets claimed or we trade him to another club, he goes to the other club with the same Rule 5 restrictions,” Huntington explained. “If he clears outright waivers, that’s the point when we offer him back to Florida (for $25,000). We could either try to work out a trade to keep him or they take him back.”

Huntington said he will try to swing a trade with the Marlins to keep Raynor if he clears waivers.

– This will not be the last move by the Pirates. They still need a starter for Thursday, though it seems that job will go to Brian Burres.

Once the pitching situation settles down — which could take a while, until Ross Ohlendorf comes off the DL and the healthy pitchers manage to turn in a few quality starts — Huntington plans to add a position player.

“In this tough stretch, we’re going to have to go a couple spot starts,” Huntington said. “When we get back to 12 pitchers and 13 position players, we’ll try to find somebody who can help out our offense.”

The Pirates probably won’t reach that point for another couple of weeks. But when they do get there, the bat who comes to Pittsburgh could be either Jose Tabata or Pedro Alvarez.

It’s starting to look as if Alvarez, Tabata and top pitching prospect Brad Lincoln all will be in the majors by the end of June.

– The clubhouse doors were kept shut for about a half-hour after tonight’s 17-3 loss for a players’ meeting. It’s already the third such confab since the end of spring training.

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McCutchen into leadoff spot

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MILWAUKEE — Another lineup tweak tonight by manager John Russell. Andrew McCutchen will bat leadoff for the first time this season. Andy LaRoche, who’s riding a hit streak in five at-bats and is 11 for 22 over the past seven games, will make his first appearance in the two hole. Aki Iwamura, who’s gone 2 for 27 over his past seven games, drops down to the seventh spot.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Pirates (7-11) – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Andy LaRoche 3b, 3. Ryan Church lf, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Ryan Doumit c, 6. Jeff Clement, 7. Aki Iwamura 2b, 8. Zach Duke (2-1, 4.13) lhp, 9. Ronny Cedeno ss

Brewers (8-10) – 1. Rickie Weeks 2b, 2. Carlos Gomez cf, 3. Ryan Braun lf,4. Prince Fielder 1b, 5. Casey McGehee 3b, 6. Corey Hart rf, 7. Greg Zaun c, 8. Alcides Escobar ss, 9. Yovani Gallardo (1-2, 4.30) rhp

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Jaku seeks physical, mental recovery

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HOUSTON — The first step for Chris Jakubauskas, obviously, is to get healthy again. He has a concussion and a nasty knot on the back of his head after being struck by Lance Berkman’s line drive Saturday night.

It was the scariest thing I’ve seen in a game since the play in 2000 when Penn State’s Adam Taliaferro damaged his spinal cord and was temporarily paralyzed while tackling Ohio State’s Jerry Westbrooks. Considering how frightening Jakubauskas’ incident looked, he knows he’s lucky to have sustained such “minor” injuries.

“There aren’t any cracks (in the skull), no brain swelling, no bleeding or anything like that,” Jakubauskas said. “I have a mild concussion, so I’ve got to get through that, hopefully, two or three weeks, but that’s optimistic. You never know how you’ll respond.”

Jaku was released from the hospital Sunday morning and rejoined the Pirates at Minute Maid Park during their 10-3 loss against the Astros. He took the team charter to Milwaukee, where the team opens a three-game set Monday, and will be re-examined by doctors. Once his symptoms clear, Jaku can begin his rehab.

Making a physical recovery is one thing. Clearing the mental hurdles, as Paul Maholm explained last night, is another.

“I’d be a liar if I didn’t say it’s popped into my head a couple of times, ‘Am I going to be gun shy when I get back on the mound?’ ” Jakubauskas admitted. “But with as many pitches as I’ve thrown since I was 8 years old, this is the first time I’ve been hit in the head by a baseball. Odds are pretty good that it won’t happen again — but I’ll knock on wood, just in case. I’m definitely looking forward to getting back out there. But the first thing is, I want to make sure I get healthy again.”

– Exclusive video of my interview this afternoon with Jakubauskas is posted on the Trib’s Web site.

– There’s a big “TBA” in the spot where the Pirates’ starting pitcher should be listed for Tuesday’s game against the Brewers. This morning, manager John Russell hinted that either Brian Bass or Brian Burres might start Tuesday, but both pitched today — Bass going two innings, Burres 1.2 innings. So, it’s up in the air again. It won’t be Brad Lincoln, who pitched Sunday for Triple-A Indianapolis.

– Right-hander Ross Ohlendorf (back spasms) today threw a full bullpen session and reported no problems with his sore lower back. Ohlendorf is slated to throw off the mound again Tuesday. If that goes well, Ohly might be ready to begin a minor league rehab assignment, which will include at least two starts.

– Andy LaRoche went 4 for 4 today, and has hits in five straight at-bats going back to Saturday. LaRoche is 11 for 22 over his past eight games.

– The Astros, like every other team in the NL, know they can run on the Pirates. Houston stole six bases, two shy of their team record. It would have been seven, as Michael Bourn had a great jump in the third inning, but Jeff Keppinger foul-tipped the ball. Still, Bourn tied his career-high with three steals.

– Even Pedro Feliz, who’ll turn 35 years old on Tuesday, stole second base today. It was his first theft in 327 games since Sept. 7, 2007. Feliz has 13 career steals in 25 attempts.

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A flurry of roster moves

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HOUSTON — — Before Sunday’s game, the Pirates made two moves to shore up their battered pitching staff. Left-hander Brian Burres was called up from Triple-A Indianapolis, and righty Brian Bass was selected from Indy.

Bass will take the place of Chris Jakubauskas (concussion), who was placed on the 15-day disabled list. To clear a spot on the 40-man roster for Bass, Indianapolis outfielder Brandon Jones was designated for assignment.

To clear a spot on the active roster for Burres, right-hander Daniel McCutchen was optioned to Indianapolis.

“I can definitely use some time to work things out,” said McCutchen, who went 0-2 with a 13.50 ERA in four outings (three starts). “I need to get my arm strength up. Maybe that’s the reason the results haven’t quite been there for me.”

Manager John Russell said a lack of command is McCutchen’s biggest problem — and his problems were many.

“He needs to get back into his game,” Russell said. “He tried to do a little bit too much here. The shape of his pitches, he was too flat. His secondary pitches weren’t as sharp. He lost that feel, the angle, the sink, the depth of his breaking ball, inconsistency, yanking his changeup too much. It all kind of snowballed on him.”

Unless he has to make an emergency relief outing tomorrow, Burres probably will start Tuesday against the Milwaukee Brewers. Burres has not pitched since the Pirates sent him back to Indy five days ago.

– Shortstop Ronny Cedeno was scratched from the lineup today due to flu-like symptoms. Bobby Crosby started at short and made a throwing error in the fourth inning which allowed Carlos Lee to score.

– Indianapolis’ game Saturday night was rained out, so the team was watching the Pirates game on TV when Jakubauskas was hit in the head by a line drive. “It’s every pitcher’s worst nightmare,” Bass said. “When you see it happen to somebody you know, somebody you’re buddies with, it really shakes you up.”

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Ugly memories for Maholm

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HOUSTON — Chris Jakubauskas is in Methodist Hospital, across town from Minute Maid Park, sore and scared after being struck in the head by a line drive during tonight’s game.

Paul Maholm knows exactly how Jakubauskas must feel. Maholm also knows the challenge Jakubauskas will face when he’s able to get back on a pitcher’s mound.

“It brought flashbacks,” Maholm said. “When I saw it happen, I had to go off to the side and kind of gather myself. It’s scary.”

On May 15, 2004, Maholm was struck in the face by a line drive while pitching for Class A Lynchburg. The ball broke Maholm’s nose and shattered bones near his eyes.

Maholm returned to action July 27, 2004, making a rehab start in a rookie league game. He finished the season with low-A Hickory, losing his final two starts.

Maholm believes that, after he heals physically, Jakubauskas will be mentally ready to pitch.

“At first, you might be a little jumpy,” Maholm said. “But once you get back, it’s baseball. You don’t see (that kind of injury) happen very much. It’s an unfortunate part of the game. You’ve just got to keep pitching like it’ll never happen.”

— Reliever D.J. Carrasco came in to pitch after Jakubauskas left the field. Carrasco said it’s the third time he’s been called upon in that situation, though this is the first time he’s seen a pitcher hit in the head by a liner.

“It’s always a tough situation to be in, for several reasons,” Carrasco said. “You’re warming up in front of (the other team), so they can see every pitch you throw. Your adrenaline’s going. It’s always in the back of your mind, this guy just took one off the head, so you’re gun-shy a little bit. You want to hurry up and get it going, and it gets the best of you. You think you’re ready, but your body’s not there yet.”

Carrasco gave up a two-run double to Hunter Pence, the first batter he faced. In the fourth inning, the Astros scored a run on four straight singles off Carrasco.

“It’s tough, but you’ve got to do it,” Carrasco said. “You’ve got to come in and try to throw strikes.”

— Daniel McCutchen thought for a moment he might be called upon to pitch when Jakubauskas went down. McCutchen did work the seventh inning, giving up Pedro Feliz’s leadoff double before setting down the next three batters.

“I was ready to go by the seventh,” McCutchen. “It must have been tough for D.J. There’s that sick, sick feeling in your stomach.”

McCutchen first met Jakubauskas during minicamp. They formed a bond, having both played for the University of Oklahoma, and went golfing together a few times during spring training.

“It (the injury) brings you back to this being a game and how important other things are,” McCutchen said.

McCutchen pitched one inning tonight, throwing 13 pitches. He did not throw his regularly scheduled bullpen session today — the relief stint takes its place — and likely will remain on track to start Tuesday in Milwaukee.

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Scary moment for Jakubauskas

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HOUSTON — Pirates right-hander Chris Jakubauskas was struck on the head by a line drive in the first inning of tonight’s game against the Houston Astros.

Jakubauskas was struck by Lance Berkman’s smash with two outs in the first inning. Jakubauskas dropped to the mound, covered his head with his hands and began kicking his legs in pain.

After a few tense minutes, Jakubauskas sat up as trainers examined the back and side of his head. Jakubauskas got to his feet and was helped to a motorized cart. The crowd gave him a standing ovation as he left the field.

Berkman spoke briefly with Jakubauskas before the cart pulled away.

Jakubauskas, 31, was called up Friday from Triple-A Indianapolis. The Pirates claimed him off waivers in November from the Seattle Mariners.

Tonight was Jakubauskas’ National League debut. He pitched in 35 games last season for the Mariners.

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Ohlendorf “over the hump”

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HOUSTON — Pirates right-hander took another step — sort of a half-step, actually — to getting back on the mound.

Saturday afternoon, Ohlendorf (back spasms) had a light side session at Minute Maid Park. Ohlendorf threw 22 pitches from halfway up the mound without pain.

“He’s over the hump,” pitching coach Joe Kerrigan said. “Now we can work on getting him back out there.”

The Pirates played it cautious, using yesterday’s workout to test Ohlendorf’s cranky back. He’s slated to throw a regular bullpen session today. If all goes well, Kerrigan will map out the rest of Ohlendorf’s rehab plan.

Although he is eligible to come off the disabled list Wednesday, Ohlendorf is at least two weeks away from rejoining the rotation. After missing three weeks, Ohlendorf will likely need two minor-league rehab starts to get back in form.

— Outfielder Jonathan Van Every was dealt to the Boston Red Sox for a player to be named later. Van Every hit .314 with two homers for Triple-A Indianapolis.

— Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt didn’t have much time to enjoy beating the Pirates on Friday. Yesterday, he was given permission to leave the team and drive to Mississippi, where his parents’ home was destroyed by a tornado. Although the home was leveled, there were no injuries.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Pirates (7-9) — 1. Aki Iwamura 2b, 2. Bobby Crosby 1b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Lastings Milledge lf, 6. Andy LaRoche 3b, 7. Jason Jaramillo c, 8. Chris Jakubauskas (2010 debut) rhp, 9. Ronny Cedeno ss

Astros (6-10) — 1. Michael Bourn cf, 2. Jeff Keppinger 2b, 3. Pedro Feliz 3b, 4. Lance Berkman 1b, 5. Hunter Pence rf, 6. Cory Sullivan lf, 7. Tommy Manzella ss, 8. Humbeto Quintero c, 9. Wandy Rodriguez (0-2, 4.67) lhp

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