Walker’s the guy at second; Iwamura to the bench

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Manager John Russell said on Monday that Neil Walker will now get the majority of time at second base, and that Aki Iwamura has been moved to the bench.

Walker, a Pine-Richland grad, has hit safely in four of six games since being promoted from Triple-A Indianapolis on May 25 and has doubled three times in the last three games. He made four starts at third and two at second going into Monday’s game starting at second against the Chicago Cubs.

Iwamura, who snapped an 0-for-34 streak at the plate, has struggled all season and is currently batting .173.

“(Walker) has done a nice job,” Russell said. “We’re not giving him the job, but we’ll see how it goes. He still has a lot of work to do and has to fine-tune his skills at second, but he’s made good progress.”

Iwamura’s relegation to the bench doesn’t mean he’s never going to start again, Russell said. But they hope to get him in the weight room more and working more toward full health as far as his knee is concerned. Iwamura had surgery on his anterior cruciate ligament last year while with Tampa Bay and has also missed several games this year with a hamstring injury.

“No player likes being told they’re not going to play much,” Russell said of Iwamura’s reaction to the decision. “It’s not an easy pill to swallow. I’m sure he’s disappointed and upset but hopefully he takes it the right way.”

Russell also said that center fielder Andrew McCutchen will bat leadoff, which was Iwamura’s spot in 35 of 51 games.

“He thrived at leadoff last year and he enjoys it,” Russell said. “We’re trying to set the table for the team and energize the offense.”

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Jaku OK in side session

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ATLANTA — This afternoon, right-hander Chris Jakubauskas threw a smooth, 30-pitch session in the bullpen. It was his first time on the mound since April 24, when he was struck in the head by a line drive.

“It felt good,” Jakubauskas said. “Step one over. Let’s move on to step two.”

Jakubauskas threw all fastballs, half of them from the stretch, and he’ll throw again in a couple of days. His concussion symptoms have subsided, but there still is no timetable for when he’ll come off the disabled list.

“Today was about finding my balance, getting my timing, arm slot and all that,” Jakubauskas said. “It didn’t feel like I’d been away a month, and that’s good.”

Ironically, about a half hour before Jakubauskas began his side session, Cleveland Indians pitcher David Huff took a liner off his head in a game against the New York Yankees. CT scans on Huff were negative.

“Didn’t see (the replay),” Jakubauskas said. “Don’t want to.”

– Shortstop Ronny Cedeno is back in the lineup after sitting out last night due to a sore lower back.

It’s the same spot that gave Cedeno trouble during spring training. Cedeno said the pain flared up after Thursday’s game in Cincinnati, and he woke up Friday unable to twist his torso.

“Sometimes, you sleep in a bad position, and that’s enough to (injure) it,” he said.

– The Pirates have one open spot on their 40-man roster. They’d had two until Friday, when reliever Steven Jackson was called up from Triple-A Indy. For those of you who are curious, yes, Brad Lincoln, Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez already are on the 40-man.

– Bench coach Gary Varsho was given permission to leave the team Saturday and Sunday to attend his daughter Andie’s high school graduation. In the (highly) unlikely event that manager John Russell is ejected, hitting coach Don Long would manage the team.

– The San Francisco Giants are set to call up catcher Buster Posey, their first-round draft pick in 2008. Posey, 23, was selected fifth overall, three spots behind Pirates top pick Pedro Alvarez.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Pirates (20-28) – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Neil Walker 2b, 3. Andy LaRoche 3b, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Ryan Doumit c, 6. Bobby Crosby 1b, 7. Lastings Milledge lf, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Brian Burres (2-2, 5.40) lhp

Braves (26-22) – 1. Martin Prado 2b, 2. Jason Heyward rf, 3. Chipper Jones 3b, 4. Troy Glaus 1b, 5. Yunel Escobar ss, 6. Melky Cabrera lf, 7. David Ross c, 8. Nate McLouth cf, 9. Kris Medlen (1-1, 2.57) rhp

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Cedeno scratched; more Morton info

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ATLANTA — Ronny Cedeno was scratched from the starting lineup due to tightness in his lower back. I chatted briefly with Ronny this afternoon before he went to the indoor batting cage and he seemed fine; the problem must’ve flared up after that. Bobby Crosby will start at shortstop tonight against the Braves.

Some updated info on Charlie Morton:

– Everyone, of course, wants to know who’ll start Tuesday against the Cubs. “We have time to think through it,” manager John Russell said. The easiest option probably would be to give Jeff Karstens a spot start and piece things together from there.

The more popular option would be to call up Brad Lincoln from Triple-A Indy. The buzz that he’s ready for the majors has gotten louder the past week or so and his arrival certainly would put a few more butts in the seats at PNC Park.

But here’s something to consider: whomever starts Tuesday also would line up to pitch June 8 against the Nationals. That day has been mentioned as the likely debut of wonderboy Stephen Strasburg. Would Pirates management want to stick a rookie pitcher like Lincoln into what is sure to be a circus atmosphere in Washington? Maybe, maybe not.

– Morton is with the team here in Atlanta, but was not available this afternoon to speak with the media. Saturday, he will fly to Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., to begin his rehab.

“He’s going to Florida to rehab, but also to get out of this environment and regroup,” Russell said. “With the physical and mental drain of trying to piece it together, it will be good for him to get away from this atmosphere while he’s rehabbing. He can relax and get a fresher outlook on things.”

– Russell said Morton “absolutely will have to make a rehab start or two” in the minors before coming off the DL.

– My good friend John Perrotto, who calls the shots at Baseball Prospectus (a site, by the way, which definitely is worth the click once you’re finished reading this blog) passed along some stats about Morton’s outing Thursday against Cincinnati:

Morton threw 68 pitches, 41 of them for strikes. Not awful — until you break it down a little more. Of his 41 strikes, only 26 were actually in the strike zone. That means the Reds swung and missed at 15 pitches outside the zone.

Once they knew Morton was on the ropes, the Reds actually made his job a bit easier by hacking at everything. And even though the Reds got dumber at the plate the longer Morton pitched (which wasn’t long), he still got ripped for seven runs.

Overall, he found the zone with only 38 percent of his pitches. Morton threw 34 fastballs, 25 for strikes. His curveball was ineffective — 19 curves, nine for strikes.

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Plenty of pregame action

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Busy day … and we’re still 3-plus hours from the first pitch.

– Less than 24 hours after he insisted his shoulder was “not a big issue,” right-hander Charlie Morton was placed on the 15-day disabled list. More on this after I get back from the clubhouse.

– Righty Steven Jackson was selected from Triple-A Indianapolis and will work out of the bullpen. No corresponding move was necessary, as the Pirates already had a vacancy on the 40-man roster.

– With Morton out, the starter for Tuesday’s game against the Chicago Cubs is not yet listed. Jeff Karstens could make a spot start or top pitching prospect Brad Lincoln could be called up from Indy to make his debut.

– Lefty reliever Jack Taschner (hamstring) was sent to Double-A Altoona to begin a rehab assignment.

– Altoona put right-hander Diego Moreno on the seven-day DL with a right rotator cuff strain. Infielder Jim Negrych was reinstated from the temporarily inactive list. Lefty Corey Hamman was promoted to Indianapolis.

– Eight Class A Bradenton players — closer Noah Krol; pitchers Nate Adcock, Jeff Locke and Bryan Morris; catcher Tony Sanchez; infielders Jeremy Farrell and Brock Holt; and outfielder Quincy Latimore — were named to the Florida State League all-star team. Morris was promoted to Altoona and is ineligible to play in the FSL all-star game.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Pirates (20-28) – 1. Aki Iwamura 2b, 2. Neil Walker 3b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Ryan Doumit c, 6. Lastings Milledge lf, 7. Jeff Clement 1b, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Zach Duke (3-4, 4.47) lhp

Braves (25-22) – 1. Martin Prado 2b, 2. Jason Heyward rf, 3. Chipper Jones 3b, 4. Troy Glaus 1b, 5. Yunel Escobar ss, 6. Melky Cabrera lf, 7. David Ross c, 8. Nate McLouth cf, 9. Derek Lowe (6-4, 5.30) rhp

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Morton goes on DL

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ATLANTA — Right-hander Charlie Morton was placed on the 15-day disabled list with shoulder fatigue. The Pirates recalled righty Steven Jackson from Triple-A Indianapolis.

Jackson will pitch out of the bullpen. The Pirates have not yet named a replacement starter for Tuesday’s game against the Chicago Cubs. Brad Lincoln, the club’s top pitching prospect, could be called up next week to make his debut Tuesday.

Morton (1-9, 9.35) lasted just two innings Thursday night against the Cincinnati Reds. He allowed seven runs (five earned) on eight hits, walked three, struck out two and balked once.

After the game, Morton insisted his sore shoulder was not the cause for his poor start.

“Just fatigue. It’s OK,” Morton said. “I don’t think it’s a big issue.”

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Morton safe … for now

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CINCINNATI — Charlie Morton is on the brink of being sent down to the minors.

Morton lasted just two innings tonight in an 8-2 loss against the Reds. The right-hander allowed seven runs on eight hits, walked three and balked.

The wipeout boosted Morton’s ERA by a half-point to 9.35. It was the fifth time in 10 starts that he has not pitched into the fifth inning.

Will Morton (1-9) remain in the rotation?

“As of now … yeah,” manager John Russell said. “He’s worked really hard and, unfortunately, tonight was a night where nothing really paid off for him. We’ll re-evaluate it and see where we are. It was a step back, and we’ve got to see what we can do to go forward again.”

Russell said putting Morton in the bullpen to work through his problems is not an option.

“No,” Russell said. “He’s going to be a starter, no matter what.”

Russell had a closed-door meeting with Morton for about a half-hour after the game. Morton emerged with a somber look and said he realizes his next start — scheduled for Tuesday against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park — could be make or break.

“I’ve kind of felt that for a while now,” Morton said. “The reality of it is, my first four starts were horrendous. Any progress I did make over the past month or so has been overshadowed by how horrible everything else was at the beginning of the year. It’s a difficult situation to be in.”

– The good news: Aki Iwamura had an RBI single in the seventh inning. The bad: The hit came on the one-month anniversary of his last RBI. Seriously.

– Andy LaRoche’s throwing error in the second inning opened the door for two unearned runs. With runners on the corners and one out, LaRoche snagged Brandon Phillips’ grounder but threw past second baseman Neil Walker.

LaRoche admitted he thought about going to the plate, until he saw that Orlando Cabrera had not strayed far off third. When he tried to throw for the double play, LaRoche’s body was partly turned toward first base.

“Stupid on my part,” LaRoche admitted. “I should have stepped more toward second base to make the throw. I should’ve made the decision (to throw to second) a little sooner.”

– This afternoon, Double-A Altoona turned the second triple play in franchise history. In the sixth inning, Akron had runners on first and second. Shortstop Chase d’Arnaud caught a liner, stepped on second base to double off the runner, then threw to first baseman Matt Hague for the third out.

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LaRoche back in lineup, Walker at 2b

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CINCINNATI — Three notable names in today’s lineup: Andy LaRoche, Neil Walker, Ronny Cedeno.

LaRoche is back after a five-game layoff to rest his sore lower back. He’s batting sixth for just the fourth time.

Walker is making his third start in a row and his ML debut at second base. Aki Iwamura, who’s hit safely in four straight games, gets the night off.

Cedeno is batting leadoff for the first time this year and just the second time since he was traded to the Pirates last July. In his career, he’s made 13 plate appearances as the leadoff guy and has a .231 on-base percentage. It’s hard to quibble with what Cedeno’s done lately, though — he’s reached base in 17 consecutive games, and in 21 of 22 games overall this month.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Pirates (20-27) – 1. Ronny Cedeno ss, 2. Neil Walker 3b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Ryan Chruch lf, 6. Andy LaRoche 3b, 7. Jeff Clement 1b, 8. Jason Jaramill c, 9. Charlie Morton (1-8, 8.71) rhp

Reds (27-20) – 1. Orlando Cabrera ss, 2. Miguel Cairo 1b, 3. Brandon Phillips 2b, 4. Scott Rolen 3b, 5. Jay Bruce rf, 6. Jonny Gomes lf, 7. Drew Stubbs cf, 8. Ramon Hernandez c, 9. Johnny Cueto (4-1, 3.60) rhp

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Doumit’s big hits

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CINCINNATI — More than four hours before the first pitch tonight, Ryan Doumit and Jason Jaramillo were on the field at Great American Ball Park, doing extra drills. As manager John Russell and coach Luis Dorante looked on, the two catchers worked on making throws from home plate to second base.

Doumit this season has thrown out just 2 of 29 base-stealers, a 7 percent success rate. Jaramillo, who has started nine games, is 1 for 1.

– Here are two happier stats about Doumit, according to the stat wonks at Elias: Doumit has hit five homers in the eighth inning or later, which ranks second in the majors behind Paul Konerko (seven). Only one of Konerko’s homers either tied the game or put his team ahead. Doumit and Miguel Cabrera have hit a MLB-high four tying/go-ahead homers.

– Over the past four games, Pirates starting pitchers have a combined ERA of 2.28. The two best outings in that span were Paul Maholm’s seven shutout innings last night and Zach Duke’s effort (seven innings/one earned run) on Sunday. The Pirates are 6-2 when their starter works at least seven innings.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Pirates (20-26) – 1. Aki Iwamura 2b, 2. Neil Walker 3b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Ryan Doumit c, 6. Lastings Milledge lf, 7. Jeff Clement 1b, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Ross Ohlendorf (0-2, 5.30) rhp

Reds (26-20) – 1. Orlando Cabrera ss, 2. Miguel Cairo 1b, 3. Brandon Phillips 2b, 4. Scott Rolen 3b, 5. Jay Bruce rf, 6. Lance Nix lf, 7. Drew Stubbs cf, 8. Ryan Hanigan c, 9. Bronson Arroyo (4-2, 4.85) rhp

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Rinku, Dinesh go to Washington

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CINCINNATI — Monday, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel attended a reception in Washington, D.C., hosted by President Obama. The minor league pitchers were among 150 Asian-American/Pacific Islander guests who were selected for the event as part of the White House’s Heritage Month.

– As you might expect, Neil Walker was gushing on his first day back in the major leagues. “It feels tremendous,” Walker said. “It seems like just yesterday I was making my debut here.”

Making the two-hour drive from Indianapolis to Cincinnati was nothing new to Walker. Last year, he was called up Sept. 1, when the Pirates were playing a road series against the Reds and made his major league debut that night at Great American Ball Park.

Walker did not get the game ball after notching his first RBI with an eighth-inning double. “It’s more important that we got the win than me getting the ball,” Walker said with a smile.

– Paul Maholm’s decisions have followed a win-loss pattern, with three no-decisons sprinkled in. Although he didn’t get the victory tonight, Maholm seems to be hitting a stride — he’s allowed six earned runs on 18 hits over his past three starts (20 innings).

“I was in a groove, then I had a bad start (May 9 against) St. Louis,” Maholm said. “You have bad starts. I understand that. Tonight, it was just kind of go after them, make sure you don’t walk too many guys to get yourself in trouble and let the defense make plays.”

– Ronny Cedeno has reached base in 16 straight games. … Ryan Doumit has hit five homers in the eighth inning or later this season. The MLB leader is Paul Konerko, with seven. … The Pirates are 17-8 when they score first.

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Walker in starting lineup

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CINCINNATI — As one Tweeter put it this morning, the calvary has begun to arrive.

The Pirates called up Neil Walker to replace Steve Pearce, who went on the 15-day disabled list with a badly sprained right ankle. Walker is the first of the “big four” prospects — the group also includes Jose Tabata, Brad Lincoln and Pedro Alvarez — whom everyone’s been waiting to see in the majors.

“I think I’m more prepared than I’ve ever been,” Walker said. “I’m ready for whatever opportunity they give me.”

I’ve been asked a lot already today if Walker will be a starter. He’s in the lineup tonight at third base — Andy LaRoche (sore back) will miss his fourth game in a row.

But in the long run? I asked GM Neal Huntington, who sent this email response:

“Neil will be used as a corner utility player who can help us with his versatility and bat. As with any player in his situation, he will (get) playing time off the bench and in spot starts.”

Walker drove this morning from Indy to Cincinnati, and is expected to be in uniform for tonight’s game against the Reds. Walker has become a super-utility player — adding second base, first base and outfield to his repertoire. That should come in handy, given LaRoche’s off-and-on back pain, Jeff Clement’s hitting woes and Aki Iwamura’s overall struggles.

Walker was drafted in 2004 as a catcher, and showed during spring training that he could resume that role in a hurry without problem. But for the past three seasons, he’s been used almost exclusively as a third baseman.

Monday, Delwyn Young started at third base with LaRoche again too stiff to play. Young had three doubles and two RBI, but also made a throwing error which led to Pearce’s injury and an unearned run.

Young was visibly unhappy when he looked at the lineup card before the game and saw he was at third base.

“It’s still not his most comfortable place to be,” manager John Russell said. “But with Andy being out and we’re trying to get a little more offense … “

So, the Pirates have to take the good with the bad?

“I wouldn’t call it bad,” Russell said. “It’s not … his most comfortable spot.”

Walker is comfortable at third and would be adequate at first. His skills are weakest at second base.

At Triple-A Indianapolis, Walker hit .321 with six homers, 26 RBI and 10 stolen bases. He ranked sixth in the International League in batting average, first in doubles (18), third in total bases (94), fourth in slugging percentage (.560) and was tied for 10th in steals.

Walker, 24, was the Pirates’ first-round draft pick in 2004 out of Pine-Richland High. Last year, as a late-season callup, he played in 17 games for the Pirates and hit .194.

– Lefty Donnie Veal was placed on the seven-day DL at Triple-A Indianapolis due to elbow tightness. “Hope to know more today,” said farm director Kyle Stark.

– Righty Daniel McCutchen (arm fatigue) came off the DL and will start tonight for Indy against Gwinnett.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Pirates (19-26) – 1. Aki Iwamura 2b, 2. Neil Walker 3b, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones 1b, 5. Ryan Church rf, 6. Lastings Milledge lf, 7. Ryan Doumit c, 8. Ronny Cedeno ss, 9. Paul Maholm (3-4, 4.50) lhp

Reds (26-19) – 1. Chris Heisey rf, 2. Brandon Phillips 2b, 3. Joey Votto 1b, 4. Scott Rolen 3b, 5. Jonny Gomes lf, 6. Ramon Hernandez c, 7. Drew Stubbs cf, 8. Paul Janish ss, 9. Mike Leake (4-0, 2.91) rhp

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