Knee pain ends Maholm’s season

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MIAMI — About a half-hour after tonight’s 11-9 loss, the Pirates informed us that lefty Paul Maholm will not pitch as scheduled Friday. Instead, righty Daniel McCutchen (2-5, 6.36 ERA) will start against the Marlins.

Maholm (9-15, 5.10) was scratched due to what was described only as “left knee irritation.” He has had four surgeries on the knee.

Last year, Maholm tweaked his knee on Opening Day, but initially did not tell the team about the injury and pitched in pain for much of the season. He later regretted the move, saying the sore knee affected his mechanics and put strain on his arm and shoulder.

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What’s this place called again?

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MIAMI — The end is in sight. The Pirates have four games left in the 2010 season, starting with tonight’s game against the Marlins at Whatever It’s Called This Week Stadium.

Lefty Zach Duke will make his final start. In his career, Duke has pitched seven-plus innings in 56 games — in those games, he’s 28-11 with a 1.94 ERA. The Pirates have won six straight games, including five this season, when Duke’s worked seven-plus.

By the way, they’re calling it Sun Life Stadium this week. The venue, which opened in 1987, also has been called Joe Robbie Stadium, Pro Player Stadium, Dolphins Stadium, Dolphin Stadium and Land Shark Stadium.

»»» Altoona Mirror writer Cory Giger, who today broke the story about the Pirates firing Curve manager Matt Walbeck, will have Walbeck on his radio show tonight. Here’s the link: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/sports-central-with-cory-giger

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Pirates (56-102) – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jose Tabata lf, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Garrett Jones 1b, 5. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 6. John Bowker rf, 7. Ronny Cedeno ss, 8. Chris Snyder c, 9. Zach Duke (8-14, 5.63) lhp

Marlins (77-81) – 1. Emil Bonifacio cf, 2. Osvaldo Martinez ss, 3. Logan Morrison lf, 4. Dan Uggla 2b, 5. Gaby Sanchez 1b, 6. Mike Stanton rf, 7. Wes Helms 3b, 8. Brad Davis c, 9. Chris Volstad (11-9, 4.63) rhp

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No room for a winner

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MIAMI — Matt Walbeck’s career aspirations have cost him his job as manager of Double-A Altoona.

Late last night, farm director Kyle Stark called Walbeck to tell him he will not return to Altoona in 2011.

“It caught me off guard,” Walbeck said this afternoon by phone. “Kyle basically said it was time for us to go our separate ways.”

In their second season under Walbeck, the Curve went 82-60 and won their first Eastern League championship. Walbeck was named the league’s manager of the year.

GM Neal Huntington told me the Pirates let Walbeck go because they had no openings for him at either the Triple-A or major league levels.

“We want all our staff members to go on to bigger and better things,” Huntington said. “In this instance, we didn’t have anything for him. We certainly appreciate everything Matt has done for us the past two seasons. We felt it was best to allow him to pursue other upper-level opportunities.”

Walbeck won minor league championships three times while managing for four years in the Detroit Tigers system.

“I’ve always done the best I can, knowing that one day I’ll get back to the big leagues,” said Walbeck, who was the Texas Rangers’ third base coach in 2008. “I hadn’t decided yet what I wanted to do (next year). The Pirates probably sensed that I wanted to advance and probably felt this is best for my development and growth.”

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One more try at Busch

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ST. LOUIS — The Pirates last night snapped a seven-game losing streak in St. Louis. They are 13-22 in this park since new Busch Stadium opened in 2006. A win today would give the Pirates back-to-back wins here for just the third time (April 16-17, 2007 and June 2-Aug. 19, 2008).

»»» The Cardinals last night were eliminated from postseason contention when the Reds clinched the division. St. Louis was just a couple games back of Cincy a month ago, but went into a tailspin that began with back-to-back losses in Pittsburgh. “We didn’t help them much,” manger John Russell said, grinning.

Lineups for this afternoon’s game:

Pirates (56-101) – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jose Tabata lf, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Garrett Jones 1b, 5. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 6. John Bowner rf, 7. Ronny Cedeno ss, 8. Chris Snyder c, 9. James McDonald (4-5, 4.09) rhp

Cardinals (81-76) – 1. Jon Jay lf, 2. Aaron Miles 2b, 3. Colby Rasmus cf, 4. Allen Craig rf, 5. Mark Hamilton 1b, 6, Daniel Descalso 3b, 7. Bryan Anderson c, 8. Tyler Greene ss, 9. P.J. Walters (1-0, 7.83) rhp

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State College trio among top 20 prospects

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ST. LOUIS — Three State College pitchers are listed among Baseball America’s list of the top 20 prospects in the short-season Class A New York-Penn League. Right-hander Zack Von Rosenberg is No. 6, left-hander Colton Cain is No. 10 and lefty Zack Dodson is No. 17.

Von Rosenberg, 19, was a sixth-round pick in 2009 and signed for a $1.2 million bonus. He went 1-6 with a 3.20 ERA in 16 starts. “His changeup took a major step forward this summer, and it has good four-seam spin and deception,” writes BA.

Cain, 19, got $1.15 million to sign last year, a record for an eighth-round pick. He went 1-1 with a 5.03 ERA in 11 games (nine starts). BA’s observation: “As he matures and gets more comfortable with his mechanics and stuff, he could develop into a workhorse starter.”

Dodson, 20, passed up a scholy to Baylor as a fourth-rounder last year. In 15 games (13 starts), he went 2-6 with a 4.84 ERA. “He still has a long way to go,” according to BA.

»»» Since the All-Star break, Neil Walker has 51 RBI, which ties him with Cincy’s Joey Votto and Houston’s Hunter Pence for fifth in the NL. Pedro Alvarez is sixth with 47 RBI. The top two spots belong to Colorado teammates Troy Tulowitzki (61 RBI) and Carlos Gonzalez (55). The next third- and fourth-place spots go to another pair of mates — Albert Pujols (53) and Matt Holliday (52) of St. Louis.

»»» Stats, streaks and slumps: Since they went 7-5 in St. Louis between May 13, 2008 and April 18, 2009, the Pirates have dropped seven straight games in the shadow of the Gateway Arch. … The Pirates are 12-22 since new Busch Stadium opened in 2006. … Monday was the first time in seven games at Busch that the Pirates scored more than two runs. … Last night, Morton snapped an 0-for-33 dry spell by bouncing a single up the middle.

»»» State College GM Jason Dambauch won the Robert F. Julian Baseball and Community Service Award from the New York-Penn League. Spikes sports turf manager Matt Neri was named the league’s groundskeeper of the year.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Pirates (55-101) – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jose Tabata lf, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Garrett Jones 1b, 5. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 6. Ryan Doumit c, 7. Ronny Cedeno ss, 8. Brandon Moss rf, 9. Brian Burres (3-4, 5.29) lhp

Cardinals (81-75) – 1. Tyler Greene 2b, 2. Daniel Descalso 3b, 3. Albert Pujols 1b, 4. Matt Holliday lf, 5. Allen Craig rf, 6, Colby Rasmus cf, 7. Matt Pagnozzi c, 8. Brendan Ryan ss, Jeff Suppan (2-7, 5.40) rhp

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Progress, in spots, by Morton

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ST. LOUIS — Charlie Morton continued to show signs of a turnaround — more or less — in Monday’s 6-4 loss against the Cardinals.

Morton worked six innings and allowed four runs on a season-high 10 hits. He struck out four and walked none. It was his fourth straight start without taking a loss. It lowered his ERA to 7.94 (five weeks ago, it was 10.03).

Hey, baby steps, right?

Yet, Morton was unable to hold a 4-2 lead in the sixth. He gave up a leadoff single to Albert Pujols. Matt Holliday then vaporized the first pitch he saw, a changeup that hung right over the middle of the plate, for a two-run homer.

The pitch was supposed to go a bit more inside, Morton said. “I wanted him to pull it foul. I wanted him to swing at it. I just didn’t do anything. It just stayed there for him and he did what he does.”

The rest of the inning was uneventful — a strikeout and two grounders by the Cardinals. Manager John Russell found that encouraging.

“He gave up the two-run homer and pitched really well to the next three hitters,” Russell said. “That’s a great sign for Charlie.”

A few months ago, that inning likely would have exploded beyond just two runs. Holliday’s homer probably would’ve been followed by more hits, more runs, more frustration.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of would it have gone differently before,” Morton said. “Obviously, it did go differently. Those other things were happening early in the year. Now, you see different results. You can credit me with that, but I should do that. That’s what I should do.

“So I feel like instead of finishing a game and feeling confused by what happened and just being frustrated in general, and not being able to look at myself in the mirror, now I know. I made a stupid pitch. I didn’t execute. In that regard, yeah, I think I’ve come a long way toward getting back to where I was when I was successful.”

Morton (2-11) will make his final start of the season Saturday against the Marlins.

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Alvarez is NL player of the week

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ST. LOUIS — Rookie third baseman Pedro Alvarez today was named NL player of the week.

In six games last week, Alvarez hit .417 (10 for 24) with four doubles, two home runs and a major league-leading 13 RBI. He led the NL with 20 total bases, tied for the lead in doubles, and also ranked among the leaders in hits and slugging percentage (.833).

Alvarez hit safely in every game last week — including three multi-hit games — scored four runs and had a .400 on-base percentage. He has reached base safely in 24 straight games and 24 of his past 25.

Alvarez is the first Pirates player to win the award since Ryan Doumit in June 2008.

Other nominees for the award based on last week’s games included Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen and left-hander Paul Maholm, Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto, New York Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Bruan.

The second overall draft pick in 2008, Alvarez is among the rookie leaders in homers (13, eigthth) and RBI (56, tied for eighth).

»»» According to Elias Sports Bureau, Jose Tabata (.302) and Neil Walker (.301) could become the first set of Pirates rookies to each hit .300 or better in a season since Jimmy Williams (.355) and Ginger Beaumont (.352) in 1899.

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Cardinals (80-75) – 1. Skip Schumaker 2b, 2. Allen Craig rf, 3. Albert Pujols 1b, 4. Matt Holliday lf, 5. Colby Rasmus cf, 6. Daniel Descalso 3b, 7. Brendan Ryan ss, 8. Matt Pagnozzi c, Kyle Loshe (4-8, 7.18) rhp

Pirates (54-100) – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jose Tabata lf, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Garrett Jones 1b, 5. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 6. John Bowker rf, 7. Ronny Cedeno ss, 8. Chris Snyder c, 9. Charlie Morton (2-11, 8.11) rhp

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Bowker out with sore knee

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Outfielder John Bowker is not in the lineup today due to a sore right knee. He fouled a ball of his knee a couple of days ago, and it’s continued to bother him to the point where Bowker took himself out of last night’s game.

“It got to the point yesterday where it was affecting how I was running,” Bowker said. “I needed to get get some treatment on it.”

Bowker said he feels better today and is available to pinch hit. “I probably will be ready to (start) again Monday,” he said.

Lineups for this afternoon’s final home game:

Astros (74-81) – 1. Jason Bourgeois cf, 2. Angel Sanchez ss, 3. Hunter Pence rf, 4. Carlos Lee 1b, 5. Jeff Keppinger 2b, 6. Jason Michaels lf, 7. Chris Johnson 3b,8 .Jason Castro c, 9. J.A. Happ (6-2, 2.99) lhp

Pirates (54-100) – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jose Tabata lf, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 6. Ronny Cedeno ss7. Andy LaRoche 1b, 8. Chris Snyder c, 9. Paul Maholm (8-15, 5.25) lhp

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Improving changeup aids Owens

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Over three years in the Pirates’ farm system, a total of 72 outings (68 starts), left-hander Rudy Owens is 27-18 with a sparkling 2.92 ERA.

In 2009, Owens went a combined 11-2 with a 2.10 ERA for Low-A West Virginia and High-A Lynchburg. This year, he went 12-6 with a league-leading 2.46 ERA for Double-A Altoona. Both years, he was named the club’s minor league pitcher of the year.

“I went into this year just trying to take everything in — trying to learn from the hitters, learn from my catchers and how they call they games, learn from my stuff,” Owens said. “I kind of caught on and trusted my stuff and my ability to call my own games. That’s where I took off.”

Owens, 22, was a 28th-round draft pick in 2006. Six of the 12 pitchers drafted ahead of him who signed with the Pirates are no longer with the organization.

Owens likely will begin next season with Triple-A Indianapolis. GM Neal Huntington recently indicated Owens is on a short list of prospects who might pitch for the Pirates at some point in 2011.

A big reason for Owens’ success is his changeup, which he said got even better this year. He threw a change at Chandler Gilbert (Ariz.) Community College, but knew it wasn’t good enough to work in the pros. He refined his change during Instructional League after playing rookie ball in 2007.

“I worked on it during the throwing program, messing with the grip, until I felt comfortable,” Owens said. “You’ve got to throw it to make it feel good. I threw it enough and got comfortable with it. I messed with the grip until I got to that point. It’s something I’ve got to perfect. I’ve got to be able to throw it in the strike zone when I want to or in the dirt when I need to. I’m just trying to get the guy to swing or miss.”

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Karstens ready to pitch

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Right-hander Jeff Karstens (shoulder) threw a 50-pitch bullpen session this afternoon, and reported no ill effects. “It wasn’t great at first, but it got better as I went along,” Karstens said.

He would like to pitch in a game, even if it’s just a relief outings, before the season is out. “I feel like I can pitch,” Karstens said. “I don’t know how sharp I’ll be, considering it’s been a while, but I want to do it.”

Manager John Russell was noncommittal: “If everything goes well, we’d like to get him out there on this (upcoming) road trip,” Russell said. “It’s important, not only for his sake. We’d like to see him pitch again. I know he wants to. It would be good for him to go into the offseason, knowing he’s healthy and ready to go.”

Lineups for tonight’s game:

Astros (73-80) – 1. Jason Bourgeois cf, 2. Angel Sanchez ss, 3. Hunter Pence rf, 4. Carlos Lee lf, 5. Jeff Keppinger 2b, 6. Chris Johnson 3b, 7. Humberto Quintero c, 8 .Brett Wallace 1b, 9. Brett Myers (13-7, 2.76) rhp

Pirates (53-99) – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jose Tabata lf, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Garrett Jones 1b, 5. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 6. John Bowker rf, 7. Ronny Cedeno ss, 8. Chris Snyder c, 9. James McDonald (4-5, 4.09) rhp

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