Pirates prepared second time around

The 2011 Pirates were in first place in the third week of July, but a terrible call by an umpire set off a nine-game losing streak and set off a huge collapse that ended their season at 72-90.

That was their professional-sports-record 19th consecutive losing season.

The top priority for the coming season, according to those inside the clubhouse, is feeding off the good and the bad of what happened.

"With what happened to us in late July and August, we know what we need to finish," said bench coach and longtime franchise fixture Jeff Banister. "We got punched in the mouth. We tasted our own blood. No one likes it, and we'd like to get rid of it."

On the bright side, if the Pirates are competitive again, it probably won't draw national headlines.

"For sure, I don't think we'll sneak up on anybody anymore," second baseman Neil Walker said. "But it also helps us, I think, in that we'll be better prepared for when the tough times come. We'll know how to handle things better and avoid that long losing streak."

The Pirates have All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen, recently signed to a six-year, $51.5 million extension and a handful of other everyday fixtures.

But they'll live or die with their pitching.

The rotation will be the same, aside from A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard essentially taking the place of Paul Maholm and someone else down the road. That should represent an upgrade.

The bullpen will be mostly the same, too, still anchored by 40-save man Joel Hanrahan.

"There are a lot of good arms here," reliever Chris Resop said. "If the starters can get us six or seven, and we know they can, we've got the guys to take it home."

The biggest variable is struggling third baseman Pedro Alvarez, coming off a .191 disaster. If he can hit to his pedigree, the No. 2 overall pick in 2008, the lineup looks a lot more powerful.

If not, it will be a lot of bunting and hit-and-run plays.

NOTES, QUOTES

--LHP Erik Bedard was given the opening-day nod but only because RHP A.J. Burnett sustained a broken orbital bone late in February. Bedard has been slow in progressing during the spring, but he has by far the best pedigree of any of the Pirates' active starters.

--RHP A.J. Burnett pitched three side sessions without incident and was scheduled to throw a live batting practice Saturday. He described the eye as being incident-free and said: "I've really just got to build up the strength in my arm." Officially, his 2-to-3 month timetable hasn't changed from the time he was injured.

--3B Pedro Alvarez, off to a 4-for-30, 13-strikeout start to his spring, still looks like he'll make the team, to hear management tell it. But he certainly has seemed lost to this point. Observers this spring have seen him use three different stances at the plate, as well as being too patient or too hasty with his swings. "You kind of flirt with that line between being aggressive and passive," Alvarez said. "But, yeah, a controlled aggression. Just be ready to hit. Don't worry about recognizing the pitch or that the swing is perfect. It's really just see ball, hit ball."

--INF Josh Harrison and INF Yamaico Navarro are looking like the top candidates for bench duty. Harrison was 11 for 20 at the plate, Navarro 11 for 36. Both looked eminently comfortable at the plate and were showing enough defensive versatility.

--RHP Evan Meek gradually was ramping up his velocity, reaching 94 mph in a two-inning stint on March 21. Management continues to count on him to be fully recovered from the shoulder trouble that cost him much of last season. If not, RHP Jason Grilli or RHP Chris Resop will be considered for setup duty.

BY THE NUMBERS: 4 -- Regulars on the Pirates batting .400 or better this spring through March 23: Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison, Nate McLouth and Matt Hague

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We encourage him just to let it go, not to grunt, and snort, and slobber to get it going." -- Manager Clint Hurdle, on RHP Evan Meek gradually increasing his velocity

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