Pirates fall to Curve 8-6 in final spring tune-up

Starting Line upIt was an exciting day in Curve, PA as the Double-A Altoona Curve hosted the Pittsburgh Pirates in front of a record crowd of 10,116. The Curve won the game 8-6, but as an exhibition, the score can be a bit deceiving, since pitchers for both clubs switched teams to create more competitive match-ups. Pirate starter James McDonald struggled on the day, only lasting two innings, and former Curve all-star Starling Marte hit a towering grand slam.

The organization also announced today that the Curve’s contract with Pirates has been renewed through 2018. In addition, Altoona will host the 2014 Eastern League all-star game next summer.

James McDonald struggled in his start tonight. - Image Credit: David Hague

James McDonald struggled in his start tonight. – Photo: David Hague

McDonald struggles to find the strike zone

James McDonald got the start for the Pirates in his last tune up before the season. The right-hander struggled with his command in the first inning giving up four earned runs on three hits, walking two with a wild pitch and one strikeout. He threw 38 pitches in the inning, recording 21 strikes. The big blow was an opposite field 2-RBI bloop double by Curve catcher Carlos Paulino, landing right inside the right-field line. McDonald settled down in his final inning, the 2nd, though he did walk first baseman Matt Curry.

This wasn’t the first time McDonald struggled in the first inning this spring, something he knows needs to improve. “In the first inning, I need to try to lock it down, focus in a little harder, because once I get going it’s pretty smooth from there,” he said.

McDonald’s big problem today was his command. He fell behind 7 of the 9 batters he faced in the first inning, missing regularly with his fastball that sat 90-93 mph. The struggles weren’t limited to the fastball, as the whole arsenal, which includes a change-up and slider (both used sparingly today) plus a solid curveball that is an out pitch, was shaky. He spoke of making adjustments in between innings, and the second inning was much sharper, including his best curveballs of the day to get a soft comebacker from Mel Rojas Jr. and a strike out facing Jarek Cunningham.

Starling Marte hit a grand slam. - Photo: David Hague

Starling Marte hit a grand slam. – Photo: David Hague

Marte stars in return to Altoona

Pirates starting left fielder Starling Marte launched himself onto the prospect map while playing in Altoona in 2011. He still appears comfortable at the ballpark, as today he went 2 for 3 and crushed a grand slam over the left-field bleachers against MLB teammate Tony Watson in the 2nd inning.

“I just caught too much of the plate,” said Watson after the game. “Starling will have bragging rights for a while now,” he adds.

For Marte, this will be his first full season in Pittsburgh, and he focused on improving specific aspects of his game this off-season.

“I played winter ball in the Dominican and that helped me out a bunch. One of the biggest things for me is plate discipline and making pitchers throw me strikes to hit or to take more walks,” said the left fielder through a translator.

Manager Clint Hurdle adds, “He has everything you want in a ballplayer that can make an impact in all aspects of the game—with his glove, with his legs, with his bat. He needs experience and to play. There are things that are coming together for him, but he needs to continue to work everyday to improve. It’s going to be an exciting season for him.”

Jason Grilli got the start for Altoona. - Photo: David Hague

Jason Grilli got the start for Altoona. – Photo: David Hague

Grilli impressive, ready to close in 2013

Pirates closer Jason Grilli got the start for the Curve, facing the top of the Pirates line-up to open the game. Grilli impressed. After giving up a lead-off line drive single to Starling Marte, he finished the inning in order, recording two strikeouts. Of his 14 pitches, 11 were thrown for strikes, and his fastball was 90-94 mph today.

Grilli is looking forward to closing for the Pirates this season, and he aims to build off his success as one of the league’s best set-up men last year. “Last year was a big stepping stone for me. I don’t think I need to do anything more than what I did then,” he said before the game.

The 36-year old journeyman cites his time as a set-up reliever as a major benefit in his new role.

“Holding inherited runners is something I’ve prided myself on for a long time. It’s made me a better pitcher because you don’t have that margin for error.”

Manager Clint Hurdle is a big believer in Grilli’s skills, and he believes he is ready to close for the Pirates this season.

“Jason’s a man who’s been motivated throughout the years by new challenges. The game was taken away from him for a period of time, which reinvigorated and re-energized him. In 2012, we gave him a more meaningful role [than in his two month stint in 2011], and he handled that very successfully, probably as successful as any set-up man in baseball last season. So, for me this is the next challenge for Jason.”

Superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen seems to agree. When asked if he was excited to face Grilli today, he didn’t hesitate– “No, not really.”

Additional Pirates Notes:

**Andrew McCutchen had a quiet day at the plate going 0 for 3, but he expressed that he’s ready for the season to start. Asked about his off-season the all-star said, “[I was] just working hard. I did what I had to do to have the confidence that I can have another good year.”

**New catcher Russell Martin had two hits on the day, a good sign as the Pirates are looking for more production from the catcher spot than previous years. The Curve stole two bases on the day, but in both cases, the runners got great jumps on the pitchers. Hurdle noted that stopping the running game of opposing teams was a major point of emphasis this offseason.

Altoona Curve notes:

**Given some challenges to find at bats for the best hitters while also filling each position, the Curve are moving several players around. 2012 Florida State league MVP Alex Dickerson, who moved from the outfield to first base after college, got the start in right field today. He’ll also see time in left and probably first as well. In addition, Adelberto Santos will start the season at third base, adding another position to his repertoire, after playing second base and the outfield previously.

“It’s going to be tough on them to perform while also learning a new position. But I definitely have trust in the abilities that they have,” said manager Carlos Garcia.

**Centerfielder Mel Rojas, Jr., left fielder Andrew Lambo, and DH Justin Howard each had two hits and an RBI for the Curve, who amassed 9 hits total. Lambo also had a nice diving catch in left.

**Seven Curve pitchers saw action today, all bullpen arms except for Brandon Cumpton, who faced 18 batters in 3.2 innings, surrendering 2 ER and 7 hits while striking out 4 with no walks. Garcia was happy with Cumpton’s last tune-up and commends the aggressiveness he pitched with today, facing many major league batters.

**Starting pitchers Jameson Taillon, Stolmy Pimentel, Casey Sadler, and Kyle Waldrop have not made the trip north yet, instead wrapping up their final workouts in Bradenton before joining the club.

**Garcia indicated that he and the Pirates development staff will be meeting later this week to discuss Taillon’s innings and pitch counts for this season, but no numbers specific numbers have been decided yet.

Author: John Eshleman

John Eshleman joined Pirates Prospects in 2012, providing live coverage of the State College Spikes and the Altoona Curve. He will return for the 2013 season to provide coverage of the Jamestown Jammers while they are in State College. He will also be providing coverage of the Altoona Curve throughout the year. John is currently earning a Ph.D in Rural Sociology from Penn State University, and he lives in State College with his fiance Allison. Also, he hates the designated hitter rule.

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    20 Pirates Questions for 2013

    1. Will Russell Martin be a significant upgrade over Barajas?

    2. Will the 1B platoon make enough noise at the plate?

    3. Can Neal Walker play 140+ games?

    4. Will Clint Barmes hit like April-July or Aug-Sept?

    5. Can Pedro Alvarez hold the K’s to something like 150?

    6. Will Starling Marte take a big step forward?

    7. Can Cutch outdo last year?

    8. Will somebody please step up in RF?

    9. Will Grilli be an effective closer?

    10. How will Hughes and Melancon react to late-inning responsibilities?

    11. Will Justin Wilson be able to maintain adequate command with the light workload of a specialty reliever?

    12. Can A.J. Burnett duplicate his 2012 effectiveness?

    13. Will Wandy Rodriguez be a solid #2 starter?

    14. Which James McDonald will we get this year?

    15. Can Jonathan Sanchez hold his walks to <3.5 per 9?

    16. Can Jeff Locke maintain the consistency he showed in spring training?

    17. When will Gerrit Cole come up?

    18. Will Kyle McPherson eventually end up as a swing guy on the staff?

    19. Will Charlie Morton and Francisco Liriano combine for 175 IP?

    20. Will Clint Hurdle stop plaing for 1 run in the first inning?