Pirates' Bell getting his feet wet at first base in AFL

Organization's 2014 Minor League Player of the Year transitioning from outfield

Pirates' Bell getting his feet wet at first base in AFL

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Pirates placed a high "priority" on finding out this fall whether Josh Bell, the organization's No. 3 prospect, can be a viable future option at the persistent black hole in their lineup -- first base. They designated the natural outfielder as their "priority" player on Scottsdale's roster in the Arizona Fall League, locking him in to getting the bulk of playing time at the position.

For Bell, who had never before played in the infield, the accelerated education has been challenging. He hasn't failed but, if actually being graded, he would have an "incomplete" 13 games into the 32-game AFL schedule.

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Bell split his first 10 games between DH and first, where he has already committed four errors. They've been fielding -- rather than throwing -- errors, due to his unfamiliarity with the position. In a recent game, for instance, he muffed an easy grounder about 15 feet off the line as he tried to glove it while already making his move toward the bag -- unsure of whether the pitcher could get there in time.

"Getting to feel overall comfortable has been the biggest challenge," Bell admitted. "I'm sure that will come with reps. When I get more playing time, I'll be able to just run with it, react. It's definitely something different. You're a lot more active. It keeps you more in the game, always on your toes."

Normally, little attention is paid in the AFL to defensive stats. Bell's situation is more conspicuous than normal, of course. He received a $5 million bonus after being chosen in the second round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, and as an outfielder he was chosen the Pittsburgh organization's 2014 Minor League Player of the Year.

There are at least two excellent reasons for getting a read on Bell's ability to transition to first base. Foremost is the trio of Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco, which could monopolize the PNC Park outfield for years. Then, the Bucs haven't had an everyday first baseman since 2008 (Adam LaRoche). The Pirates have gone with various platoon combinations in recent years, and the switch-hitting Bell could put an end to that.

At 6-foot-2, the 22-year-old certainly has the ideal stature for the position. On the downside, first base appears to considerably squander his athleticism. He is noticeably mechanical around the base, overthinking plays rather than handling them instinctively. The comfort zone figures to expand with experience, of course.

Despite the defensive distractions, Bell has kept his bat warm. He hit .275 in his first 10 games, with nearly half of his 11 hits for extra bases. Bell batted .301 this season in 108 games between advanced Class A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona. He knows hitting and, in fact, sees the challenge of adapting to a new position through that prism.

"It's not that much different than hitting, in my eyes," Bell said. "When the ball comes off the bat that quickly toward you, it's kind of similar to being in the box and having to recognize what's coming -- curveballs and changeups and fastballs."

Interestingly, due to the "priority" limitation, Bell has not even been working out in the outfield here. He is unconcerned about rust.

"I'm trying to get as many reps as I can at first. The outfield, that's something I can always go back to," Bell said. "So I'm just trying to take it one day at a time and learn as much as I can.

"The AFL experience … that's been awesome. The parks we play in are awesome, and being able to learn from teammates and coaches who've had success at various levels, picking their brains, is going to help me."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Hurdle, Huntington praise departing Banister

Respected bench coach will take reins as manager of Rangers

Hurdle, Huntington praise departing Banister

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington, whose support for Jeff Banister had a lot to do with his hiring by Texas, wished well to the new Rangers manager with gratitude.

"On behalf of the Pirates organization," Huntington said, "we want to thank Jeff for his long-standing impact and dedication. His leadership, character, work ethic, knowledge of the game, energy and passion made us better every day he was a Pirate. We wish Jeff and his family nothing but success with the Texas Rangers."

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Huntington's rundown of Banister's assets echoed the impressions of Rangers GM Jon Daniels as he detailed the reasons Banister stood out among the eight candidates to formally interview for the job.

In his conference call with reporters, Daniels also dropped a reference that had to swell with pride members of a Pirates organization that until last year bore the stigma of the longest dry spell in American team sports history.

"When you bring in someone from a successful program," Daniels said, "you hire the individual, but you also benefit from his experiences in helping build that success. Jeff was a big part of the Pirates' success, of helping their plan reach fruition."

Justice on Banister to Rangers

Video: Justice on Banister to Rangers

If Hurdle has been the architect of that success, Banister, as his bench coach, was a senior partner.

"He has been an instrumental reason for the success the Pirates organization has had over the course of his tenure with the ballclub," Hurdle said. "Jeff has put forth as much sweat-equity and hard work into the game of baseball as any man I have had the privilege of working with.

"We believe it will be an excellent fit for him and the Texas Rangers," Hurdle added.

As for the Pirates finding a replacement as Hurdle's wingman, it should be a quick process. There are multiple in-house candidates: Third-base coach Nick Leyva is a former big league manager; coach Dave Jauss has been bench coach with the Mets, the Dodgers and the Orioles; and Dean Treanor has earned points with his work as Indianapolis manager.

There is also one outstanding external option: Recently dismissed Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, a tight friend of Hurdle's ever since the two of them were teammates on the 1983-85 Mets.

Daniels noted that Hurdle and Huntington, as well as club president Frank Coonelly, were among the "15-to-20 people we talked to, and they exclusively all had a ringing endorsement of Jeff."

Banister had anticipated the opportunity to manage as a way of honoring the organization with which he had spent the last 29 years.

Earlier this month, although disappointed when the Houston Astros bypassed him in favor of A.J. Hinch, Banister was already looking forward to the next chance.

"The greatest compliment I could pay to the Pittsburgh family, the people who taught me, is to take what we have done here and put it to use in another organization," Banister had told MLB.com at the time. "If someone asked me to interview for their job, it would be the ultimate compliment to Clint and to Neal and to Frank and to [club chairman Bob Nutting]. To take what we have created here and apply it elsewhere."

That's precisely what Daniels expects from his new skipper.

"Our top criteria was someone who could create a winning culture," said Daniels, borrowing a favorite mantra of the Hurdle-Banister regime. "Jeff Banister is the right fit, the right guy to lead us."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Glasnow leads way in sharp outing for Bucs hurlers at AFL

Pirates pitching prospects on point for Scottsdale before Peoria's late rally

Glasnow leads way in sharp outing for Bucs hurlers at AFL

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Major Leagues' scintillating, unpredictable postseason is on hiatus, but scintillating, unpredictable baseball goes on.

The Arizona Fall League filled the void Saturday, with Peoria's 4-3, 11th-inning walk-off win over Scottsdale.

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Box score

Jordan Smith's RBI double with one out snapped the Javelinas' seven-game winless streak, a day after their slide was extended when Salt River rallied in the ninth for the tying run of what became a 3-3 deadlock at the AFL's 11-inning limit.

"It's good to be on the winning side of the comeback," said Smith, an outfielder in the Indians' farm system. "We've been struggling to win lately, so we were really glad to get this win."

The Javelinas followed the October script not only in walking off, but in how they engineered it. Before back-to-back doubles with one out in the 11th by Edward Salcedo and Smith won it, Kes Carter tied it with a solo homer with two outs in the ninth.

That's the same Kes Carter who had five homers in 481 plate appearances while splitting this season between the Rays' Class A Advanced A and Double-A levels.

"He definitely had a big day today," Smith said of Carter, the centerpiece of Peoria's two-run seventh, doubling for a run before scoring on Raul Mondesi's single. "When Kes hit that [double], it gave us a little boost, and we started getting a little confidence and we knew we had a good chance to win the game."

Smith had the last word, though, going opposite field on Colton Murray's 0-1 slider to chase home Salcedo, whose slide to beat left fielder Tyler Austin's throw triggered an overdue celebration.

"I was looking for something I could drive through the infield," Smith said. "When I saw [the pitch] was middle-away, I tried to hit it the other way. [Third baseman] Dante Bichette Jr. was there, and I saw him make a lunge at it. Once it got by him, I knew it was going to be a close play at the plate. It worked out for us, but it definitely was a close play."

Until turning around on the Javelinas' rally, the game had been a showcase of Pirates pitching prospects. Tyler Glasnow, Pittsburgh's No. 1, began it with his second straight start of three shutout innings and Adrian Sampson hurled a hitless sixth. In between, Angel Sanchez, an early August waiver pickup from the White Sox, blanked Peoria on a hit for two innings.

Josh Bell played behind Glasnow in Class A Advanced Bradenton's outfield last season and now is getting a closer look at the 6-foot-7 right-hander. In the AFL, Bell is exclusively playing first base, with the parent club focused on adding to his versatility.

"He's definitely chucking it," Bell said of Glasnow. "At first base, you definitely get a different look at the silly swings he gets out of people. But he's been dealing all year, now he's just doing it to different people."

Bell's only hit on Saturday was a sixth-inning double, followed by a Bichette single that drove him home and gave the Scorpions a 2-0 lead.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Catching prospect Diaz could be in Pirates' plans for 2015

Catching prospect Diaz could be in Pirates' plans for 2015

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It's the eighth inning of a recent Arizona Fall League game, and Scottsdale's 2-1 lead is in jeopardy as Mesa loads the bases with two outs. Right-hander Colton Murray's pitch to the lefty hitting Jacob Hannemann sails way outside, forcing catcher Elias Diaz to quickly shift both his feet and hands to backhand the ball.

From that twisted receiving position, Diaz uncoils and unloads a throw to second that almost picks off the runner, Dan Robertson.

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The "almost" doesn't even matter. The audacious play says everything about the mobility, arm and confidence of a young catcher who has zoomed his way into the Pirates' plans.

As the 2014 Minor League season progressed, manager Clint Hurdle and GM Neal Huntington both went out of their way to heap props on Diaz, so he was known by reputation. But this was a first opportunity to see him in action.

Diaz is popularly labeled the Bucs' "Plan B" behind the plate, with the team and its fans holding out hope for being able to retain free agent Russell Martin. Reality, however, graduates Diaz to "Plan A."

The 23-year-old Venezuelan hasn't yet been in Pirate City for the Major League Spring Training camp -- that will change in February -- so he can't think about getting to Pittsburgh.

"I don't hear anything," Diaz said about any awareness of how he had grabbed team leaders' attention. "I try to give it the best I can every day, keep getting better. That's all I can do."

He has quick feet, sure hands. In Monday night's game against Mesa, Scottsdale pitchers typically buried numerous breaking pitches in the dirt. None got past Diaz's blocks. The fans sitting behind home plate in Scottsdale Stadium still do not know what Diaz looks like: Not once did he have to straighten and turn to run toward them to chase down a pitch.

As for the arm, Diaz should have to register it.

"He's got a cannon," said Tyler Glasnow, the righty who is the Pirates' No. 1 prospect and is here pitching to Diaz for the first time.

There's no mystery why the publication Baseball America ranked Diaz as "Best Defensive Catcher" in the Double-A Eastern League. Significantly -- because the Pirates have this resistance to having anyone skip a Minor League rung -- Diaz was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis for the final two weeks of the season. When he left Altoona, he was third in batting in the Eastern League with a .328 average and was riding a 16-game hitting streak.

Going off reports he had gotten, Hurdle then chose a prophetic way to laud Diaz's bat work.

"He's been having at-bats like Russell Martin is," Hurdle had said. "Grinding them out in a blue-collar way."

When Diaz got to Indianapolis, former first-round Draft pick Tony Sanchez was issued a first baseman's glove.

Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor at the time said that directive "came from the top." Frank Kremblas, a top lieutenant in the Bucs' Minor League operations who is here managing Scottsdale, said, "Yeah, absolutely," when asked whether Diaz had leapfrogged Sanchez as the organization's top catching prospect.

"He has gotten really comfortable at the position," Kremblas said of Diaz. "A few years ago, he would rush everything back there and throw the ball all over the place. But all his hard work has been paying off."

Ironically, Diaz's bat put him on the Pirates' map. His Altoona breakout came after he'd hit .279 at Class A Advanced Bradenton in '13, and .208 at Class A West Virginia in '12.

Ironic, because Diaz had always felt more confident in his offense than in his defense.

"I've been more focused on defense. I knew the hitting would come," Diaz said. "I work on both the same every day. Now, in the game, I'm mostly focused on helping my pitcher."

"He's a phenomenal catcher," Glasnow said. "Everything is so soft when he catches it. It's definitely a confidence boost to know he's behind the plate. He gets you some outs with that arm."

Since being taken in the fifth round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, Glasnow has always been one Minor League rung behind Diaz. They've caught up to each other in the AFL to form a battery for the first time. It is an act that could soon move to PNC Park.

"Diaz has the best throwing arm in our system," Huntington said, "and his receiving, game-calling and blocking have all advanced."

"He is a guy we'll have more conversations about over the winter," Hurdle had said as the season was winding down, obviously already anticipating his own first in-person look at his possible next catcher.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Bucs considering future of four key veterans

Bucs considering future of four key veterans

PITTSBURGH -- The day after the Pirates' loss in the National League Wild Card Game, four of their players became free agents. On the sixth day after the conclusion of the World Series, other clubs can begin dickering with Russell Martin, Edinson Volquez, Francisco Liriano and Clint Barmes.

Until then, the Bucs are free to do their own negotiations with the four. Per club policy, general manager Neal Huntington won't comment to the extent he has taken advantage of having the players' undivided attention.

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"We'll stay with our policy and prefer not to talk about the process until it's complete," Huntington said Thursday.

On Thursday, we did learn that another Pirates veteran who could have become a free agent turned down that option: Outfielder Jose Tabata, who had been designated for assignment on Oct. 3, was outrighted to Triple-A Indianapolis; by accepting that move, Tabata protected the guaranteed $8.5 million remaining on his contract.

The Pirates are still in the starting blocks with the four free agents, of whom, interestingly, Liriano offers the most intrigue.

Martin is the most wanted. A year after declining a $14.1 million qualifying offer to A.J. Burnett for fear he might accept, the Pirates are certain to make the $15.3 million offer to Martin, certain of its rejection.

Entering an extremely thin catchers market off a career season, Martin, 31, will be a hot commodity. The opening line on his likely landing is four years for $50 million.

Volquez, after an impressive comeback season, may also be in line for long-term offers, longer than the two years with which the Pirates feel comfortable for pitchers. Barmes has a home on the Bucs' bench, if he wants it.

That leaves Liriano, who is so fascinating for a very simple reason: There is no telling where his market will go after a season in which he only appeared to decline after the comeback of 2013.

Liriano went 7-10 after being 16-8 during a dominant '13. Yet, beyond the won-loss record, his 2014 was remarkably in the same class:

• 2013: 3.02 ERA, 163 strikeouts in 161 innings, 27 fewer hits allowed than innings pitched, an opponents average of .224.

• 2014: 3.38 ERA, 175 strikeouts in 162 1/3 innings, 32 fewer hits allowed than innings pitched, an opponents average of .218.

As can be seen, even his workload evened out. His one midseason month on the DL with a strained left oblique matched the first month of 2013 he'd missed recovering from an offseason fracture of his right forearm.

Only five MLB pitchers this season had a lower opponents average than Liriano's .218 -- Johnny Cueto, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Garrett Richards and Chris Sale.

"He had another good season for us as he got healthy," Huntington said. "He did a great job the two years he was here, no question."

Will Liriano's persistent -- but now less-deserved -- reputation for inconsistency ward off suitors enough to improve the Pirates' chances of signing him to a new deal? And if they do, does it influence good buddy Volquez's inclination to also re-up?

These are key questions for a team whose rotation is a puzzle beyond Gerrit Cole and two pitchers who weren't even in the '14 picture until accommodated by emergencies, lefty Jeff Locke and Vance Worley.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Glasnow rebounds in second Fall League outing

Pirates prospect tosses three shutout innings after rocky AFL debut

Glasnow rebounds in second Fall League outing

Tyler Glasnow's Arizona Fall League debut last Tuesday didn't go according to plan. The right-hander's command wasn't sharp and he walked three batters in the first inning. He recorded just two outs before he was removed due to his pitch count, which had already reached 29.

Glasnow, the Pirates' No. 1 prospect, returned to the mound Monday and fared much better, throwing three scoreless innings as Scottsdale defeated Mesa, 2-1. The Scorpions have now won three games in a row.

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Despite his improved results, Glasnow said he didn't feel any better from his last time out. The difference, he said, was that he found a way to succeed without his best command.

"As opposed to last time, I buried the negative thoughts and went out and did what I could and ended up with better results," he said.

Glasnow, ranked No. 16 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list, struck out three batters and held Mesa to two hits and one walk. He threw 39 pitches.

Glasnow said nothing is bothering him physically, he simply hasn't had his best stuff over the last few weeks. His last competitive start before the AFL was on Sept. 2, when he pitched for Class A Advanced Bradenton in the Florida State League playoffs. But he said the break wasn't to blame for his performance because he had been able to stay on his regular schedule in instructional league.

Despite his recent struggles, Glasnow said he is confident he will soon get back to top form.

"Sometimes that's just how it is," he said. "You won't feel good for a couple months during the season and then you'll feel great for a while. I want to focus on what you can do to control it, so you can go out and feel bad, but still pitch well."

At his best, Glasnow is one of the best pitchers in the Minor Leagues. In 23 starts this season for Bradenton, the 21-year old went 12-5 with a 1.74 ERA and struck out 157 batters in 124 1/3 innings. Opponents hit just .174 against him and he was named the Florida State League Pitcher of the Year.

Glasnow was matched Monday through three innings by left-hander Felipe Rivero, the Nationals' No. 16 prospect. But in the fourth, the Scorpions broke through for two runs against the Solar Sox starter. Roman Quinn led off the inning with a single and eventually scored on a wild pitch. The Scorpions tacked on a second run when Josh Bell, Glasnow's teammate much of the year at Bradenton, hit a two-out RBI single.

Bell, the Pirates' No. 3 prospect and No. 29 on the Top 100, finished the night 2-for-4 with a double. He entered just 1-for-9 in three AFL games. He is also playing first base for the first time in his professional career, beginning the transition from right field.

Bell began the season at Bradenton, before he was promoted to Double-A Altoona in July. He and Glasnow are roommates in Arizona.

"We go home and share what we saw and what we can do to get better," Glasnow said. "Just seeing what we can improve on."

Mesa cut Scottsdale's lead to one in the eighth inning, scoring a run off right-hander Tyler Mizenko. But the Solar Sox left the bases loaded, as right-hander Colton Murray came out of the bullpen to end the threat with a strikeout.

Shortstop Daniel Robertson, the A's No. 1 prospect and No. 85 on the Top 100, went 1-for-3 with a walk and drove in Mesa's lone run. Center fielder Dalton Pompey, the Blue Jays' No. 3 prospect and No. 88 on the Top 100, finished the game 1-for-4 with a double, a walk and a stolen base.

For Glasnow, Monday's outing wasn't as smooth as he might have liked. But it was another step in the development he hopes to undergo during the AFL season.

"My big thing this fall is not to get too results oriented," Glasnow said. "I want to try as hard as I can to [pitch well], but I want to go out and pitch in counts that are uncomfortable and throw pitches that I might not want to."

Teddy Cahill is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tedcahill. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Hurdle's hip replacement surgery successful

Bucs skipper expected to make full recovery after undergoing procedure

Hurdle's hip replacement surgery successful

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle underwent successful right hip replacement surgery on Monday, and he is expected to make a full recovery.

The team made the announcement on Monday afternoon, five days after the Pirates were eliminated from the playoffs by the Giants in the National League Wild Card Game.

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Hurdle had been troubled by chronic arthritis in his hip for most of the year and opted to postpone the surgery until the end of the season.

The issues were most noticeable toward the end of the season, when Hurdle limped out of the dugout for pitching changes and instant replay reviews.

Joey Nowak is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Top Pirates prospect Glasnow on the fast track

Righty set to start in AFL opener after spending season at Bradenton

Top Pirates prospect Glasnow on the fast track

PITTSBURGH -- When you are a fast-rising ballplayer, you don't get to rest on your laurels. You don't get to rest, period. Thus, Tyler Glasnow will be back on the mound Tuesday night, pitching for Scottsdale under the Arizona palms, 39 days after doing his thing for Bradenton under the Florida palms.

Glasnow's thing was quite mind-blowing. With the Marauders of the Class A Advanced Florida State League, he went 12-5 with a 1.74 ERA and 157 strikeouts in 124 1/3 innings. Domination every fifth day earned the 6-foot-7, 21-year-old right-hander top prospect ratings from multiple sources, including MLB.com's Pipeline.

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It also earned him Opening Night duties for the Arizona Fall League Scorpions at Salt River at 9:35 p.m. ET.

Glasnow will take the next step on his ascension. And this is a big step. Few Class A players are ever invited to compete in baseball's so-called "finishing school." Of the eight Pirates prospects on Scottsdale's roster, in fact, Glasnow is the only one without at least Double-A experience.

Double-A Altoona is definitely his next destination.

"My goal in the Fall League is to learn to throw breaking balls in non-breaking-ball counts, continue to confidently throw the changeup, and take all that into Double-A," Glasnow said. "That, and the speed separation between my changeup and fastball. On a good day, the change is 86 [mph] when I'm throwing 96-97 [mph]."

Glasnow's fast track may be fast enough to have him in Pittsburgh by next season, at the very least for a September glimpse. This is not an outrageous projection: A year after Gerrit Cole's Bradenton tenure, he was in the Pirates' rotation.

During his Marauders days, by the way, Cole was 5-1 with a 2.55 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 67 innings.

Glasnow was drafted in the fifth round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft in which Cole was the No. 1 overall choice. The big difference in their timelines is that Cole, drafted out of UCLA, stepping-stoned all the way up to Triple-A in his first pro season of 2012, while Glasnow, drafted as a 17-year-old out of Hart High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., has developed more gradually.

And more spectacularly. Rather than a dramatic breakthrough, Glasnow's 2014 merely sustained his pro resume. In three seasons, he has an ERA of 1.94, a WHIP of 1.04 and a .160 opponents' average; as he has harnessed his stuff, he has fanned 321 in 235 2/3 innings the last two seasons.

So it is entirely sensible for Glasnow to duplicate Cole's meteoric rise and end 2015 in PNC Park.

Cole, in fact, was one of the steeped Major League starters who encouraged Glasnow to adopt a habit that has made a big difference for him.

"A lot of big league starters told me to get a routine and stick to it, live by it," Glasnow said. "That's been a huge help. The consistency between starts, writing down my routine. After a rough start to the season, I kinda realized I had to stick to it, and after that, every start was the same. That's a big piece for starting pitchers.

"That, plus just having more starts under my belt. Honestly, it just comes with time. I think I was a lot better pitcher [in 2014] than I was last year. I just want to continue to progress, learn what I can, and not put too much pressure on myself."

Other than preparing the same way between starts, there has been nothing routine about Glasnow's progress.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Banister won't manage in Arizona Fall League after all

Pirates bench coach -- a top candidate for Rangers' skipper opening -- did not want to be distraction

Banister won't manage in Arizona Fall League after all

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Tyler Glasnow was on the mound, Elias Diaz was behind the plate and Josh Bell was at first base Monday night when the Scottsdale Scorpions hosted Mesa in Arizona Fall League action.

So the must-see Pirates prospects were in place. One key individual, however, was missing from the pregame plate huddle with umpires: Jeff Banister, scheduled to manage Scottsdale, was not present -- and won't be for the rest of the AFL schedule.

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This could be a good omen for Banister, who is a candidate for Texas' managerial opening. The Buccos bench coach did not want that ongoing process to be a distraction to the young players here.

Banister -- who did not manage any of the Scorpions' games as the Texas interview process proceeded -- has passed off the Scottsdale reins to Frank Kremblas, the special assistant to Pittsburgh Minor League operations director Larry Broadway.

Speaking via phone from his offseason home, Banister would not interpret his decision to stay away as a positive sign of his prospects of landing his first big-league managerial job with the Rangers.

"All I can say for now, out of respect to [Texas GM Joe Daniels] and his entire staff, it's still an ongoing process," Banister said. "I did have a tremendous time with them in Texas. That's a great group of baseball men, really passionate about the game. We had a good conversation, and I could tell they love to talk baseball."

Banister was included among eight interviewed to replace Ron Washington, who in early September resigned for personal reasons from the position he held for eight years. Significantly, none of the eight have prior Major League managerial experience -- with the short-term exception of Tim Bogar, who guided the Rangers to the wire on an interim basis and is considered a frontrunner for the job.

Banister, however, is also regarded as a finalist. The six others up for the job include Triple-A manager Steve Buechele, Indians coach Kevin Cash, former infielder Alex Cora, Boston coach Torey Lovullo, Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux and White Sox coach Joe McEwing.

"It was a wonderful opportunity, wherever they go," Banister said. "I was blessed to talk baseball with a group of men with such a passion for their organization. They're looking for a man to come in and partner and have a good time with them."

As for declining the opportunity to manage a Scorpions team that includes a half-dozen members of the Pirates organization, Banister stayed away "out of respect to them."

"Frank has been with these kids from the outset, so he deserves the opportunity to continue working with them," Banister said.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Pirates acquire pitcher Guilmet from Orioles

Pirates acquire pitcher Guilmet from Orioles

An expected busy offseason for the Pirates got off to a quick start Friday with the acquisition of right-hander Preston Guilmet from the Orioles for cash considerations.

Guilmet, 27, instantly becomes a Spring Training candidate for a bullpen that could undergo considerable makeover for 2015.

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To clear room on the 40-man roster, veteran outfielder Jose Tabata was designated for assignment, a move the club has not yet announced but showed up on Internet transaction reports. With two years and $9 million remaining on his long-term contract, Tabata will likely clear waivers, enabling the Pirates, if they choose, to outright him to Triple-A Indianapolis - as they did this June.

A ninth-round pick by Cleveland in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, Guilmet has an impressive Minor League record and made brief Major League appearances in 2013 with the Indians and this season with Baltimore.

He has posted 100 saves in 236 Minor League games, with 378 strikeouts in 346 innings. He spent most of this season with Triple-A Norfolk, going 4-2 with 10 saves, picking up 54 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings.

The 2014 season was Guilmet's second on the Triple-A level. In 2013, prior to his trade to Baltimore this April, he posted a 1.68 ERA in 49 appearances for Columbus, the Indians' affiliate in the International League.

He has been hit hard in 14 big-league appearances, allowing 16 hits and 12 runs in 15 2/3 innings. But in 10 outings for the '14 Birds, he struck out 12 in 10 1/3 innings.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Stars of tomorrow ready to shine as '14 AFL season begins

Stars of tomorrow ready to shine as '14 AFL season begins

Over its 23-year history, the Arizona Fall League has developed a reputation as a finishing school for baseball's top prospects. This year, once again, many of the game's best young players will gather in the desert, hoping to prove themselves in the same league that helped catapult Derek Jeter, Dustin Pedroia and Mike Trout to stardom.

When the AFL opens play Tuesday, the concentration of talent will again be readily apparent. Two of the three Opening Day games feature premium pitching matchups, and the third game is highlighted by two of the best shortstops in the Minor Leagues.

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The action begins at 3:35 p.m. ET when Peoria and right-hander Kyle Zimmer, the Royals' No. 2 prospect, visits Surprise and right-hander Taijuan Walker, whose last start was a complete game for the Mariners in the midst of their pennant race.

At the same time Tuesday afternoon, Glendale and shortstop Corey Seager, the Dodgers' No. 1 prospect, will host Mesa and shortstop Addison Russell, the Cubs' No. 2 prospect. The day ends with another pitchers' duel, as right-hander Tyler Glasnow, the Pirates' No. 1 prospect, will take the mound for Scottsdale at 9:35 p.m. ET at Salt River, facing right-hander Archie Bradley, the D-backs' No. 1 prospect.

Games with that level of talent are commonplace in the AFL, where 23 players ranked on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list will play this season.

For the second year in a row, Byron Buxton, baseball's top ranked prospect, is among the top prospects playing in the desert this fall. Last year, the Twins' No. 1 prospect hit .212/.288/.404 in 12 games as a 19-year-old for Glendale. This year, he will be playing for Salt River as he tries to make up for lost time after missing most of the regular season due to injuries.

Buxton played in just 31 games during the regular season. A wrist injury he suffered during Spring Training delayed his start to the season and continued to hamper him throughout the first half with Class A Advanced Fort Myers. Then, in his first game after being promoted to Double-A New Britain in August, he suffered a concussion in a harrowing outfield collision and was sidelined for the final three weeks of the season.

Now healthy again, Buxton will be one of the most-watched players in the AFL. But his is far from the only storyline to watch over the next six weeks.

Making up for lost time
Like Buxton, several other players are headed to Arizona to make up for time they lost to injury during the regular season. Others who are taking advantage of the extra developmental time include outfielder Jesse Winker, the Reds' No. 2 prospect, and shortstop Tim Anderson, the White Sox's No. 2 prospect.

Many of the starting pitchers in the AFL are there because injuries prevented them from reaching their innings caps during the regular season. Bradley, Glasnow, Zimmer and Walker all spent part of this season on the disabled list, as did right-handers C.J. Edwards, the Cubs' No. 5 prospect, and Roberto Osuna, the Blue Jays' No. 5 prospect.

Recent Draft picks
Last year, just four months after he was selected second overall in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, the Cubs sent third baseman Kris Bryant to the AFL. He hit .364/.457/.727 with six home runs in 20 games. He was named MVP and helped Mesa to the league championship game. That performance helped serve as a springboard for his historic '14 season, when he hit 43 home runs and reached Triple-A.

It is unlikely any player will be able to repeat Bryant's spectacular performance this season. But three members of the '14 Draft class will play in the AFL, led by shortstop Trea Turner, the Padres' No. 5 prospect. He was selected 13th overall in June and hit .323/.406/.448 with five home runs and 23 stolen bases in 69 games between short-season Eugene and Class A Fort Wayne.

In addition to the small group of '14 draftees, several members of the '13 Draft class will play in the AFL. Right-hander Mark Appel, the first overall pick last year, headlines the group. The Astros' No. 2 prospect had a rocky start to his first full professional season, but pitched much better after his promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi in July. He will try to build on that progress while pitching with Salt River this fall, where he joins Bradley and Buxton to form one of the most star-studded rosters in the league.

Pace of play
Major League Baseball announced last week a set of experimental rules designed to speed up the pace of play would be used in the AFL this year.

• A hitter must keep one foot inside the batter's box throughout his plate appearance, unless one of a few exceptions, such as a foul ball, occurs.

• Intentional walks will be called for by the manager and the batter will automatically take first base.

• There will be a maximum break of two minutes, five seconds between innings, with hitters required to be in the batter's box by the one-minute, 45-second mark. If either team doesn't comply, a ball or strike will be assessed accordingly.

• There will be a maximum of two minutes, 30 seconds allowed for pitching changes, including those that occur during an inning break. A ball will be called if a team takes too long.

• Each team will be permitted three "timeout" conferences covering any meeting involving pitchers and catchers, managers, coaches and batters. Timeouts during pitching changes and those that result from an injury or other emergency will not be counted toward the limit. Additionally, at Salt River home games, a 20-second pitch clock will be used. Those games will also include instant replay, as MLB continues to study potential modifications to the review system.

The experimental pace of play initiatives continue the AFL's tradition of being a testing lab for MLB's potential rule changes. Last year, the instant replay system was debuted in the AFL.

Defensive moves
Position changes often happen in a less-competitive environment than the AFL, but the league gives players who are moving around the diamond another chance to get experience.

This year, Josh Bell, the Pirates' No. 3 prospect, will be the most prominent player learning a new position. He has exclusively played the outfield in the Minor Leagues, but the Pirates already have a star-studded trio of young outfielders in the big leagues. So, this fall, Bell will try out first base, where he began taking ground balls during the regular season.

Although Peter O'Brien, the D-backs' No. 7 prospect, won't be changing positions when he catches for Salt River this fall, his progress defensively will be closely watched by evaluators. The 24-year old was a catcher in college, but has played four positions since the Yankees drafted him in the second round in '12.

The D-backs acquired O'Brien at the non-waiver Trade Deadline in exchange for Martin Prado, but injuries limited him to four games with his new club. The D-backs are sending him to the AFL as a catcher, and how he performs behind the plate over the next six weeks could inform his ultimate defensive home.

No matter where O'Brien ends up defensively, his offensive prowess gives him a chance to reach the Major Leagues. He hit 34 home runs in 106 games this season, ranking fifth among Minor Leaguers.

MLB.com's Top Prospects in AFL
1. Byron Buxton, OF, Twins
4. Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians
5. Addison Russell, SS, Cubs
9. Archie Bradley, RHP, D-backs
13. Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers
16. Tyler Glasnow, RHP, Pirates
29. Josh Bell, 1B, Pirates
38. Raul Mondesi, SS, Royals
40. Jesse Winker, OF, Reds
41. Mark Appel, RHP, Astros
47. Kyle Zimmer, RHP, Royals
49. D.J. Peterson, 3B, Mariners
53. C.J. Edwards, RHP, Cubs
60. Brandon Nimmo, OF, Mets
71. Hunter Renfroe, OF, Padres
82. Tim Anderson, SS, White Sox
84. Nick Williams, OF, Rangers
85. Daniel Robertson, SS, A's
86. Hunter Dozier, 3B, Royals
87. Miguel Almonte, RHP, Royals
88. Dalton Pompey, OF, Blue Jays
96. Trea Turner, SS, Padres
98. Matt Olson, 1B, A's

Teddy Cahill is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tedcahill. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Huntingon has plenty of work ahead of 2015

Decisions on Martin, Volquez and Liriano will be key to club's offseason

Huntingon has plenty of work ahead of 2015

PITTSBURGH -- Even before the 2014 season officially ended for the Pirates, '15 began for their general manager, Neal Huntington.

The two biggest exit cheers during Wednesday night's National League Wild Card Game were for right-hander Edinson Volquez -- even as he walked off the mound down, 4-0, in the sixth inning -- and for catcher Russell Martin, as he was making the first out in the ninth inning of an 8-0 loss.

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That was the PNC Park record crowd's way of telling the Pirates to re-sign the two key players who were set to become free agents.

Those are two of the biggest challenges facing Huntington in his ongoing mission for perennial contention, but hardly the only ones. Besides confronting two other free-agent decisions -- starting pitcher Francisco Liriano and reserve infielder Clint Barmes -- the GM's plate is overrun with 14 arbitration-eligible players.

Some of them are easier calls, in both the definite-keeper (Neil Walker, Josh Harrison, Pedro Alvarez) or non-tender (Brent Morel) columns. Others reside in a gray area.

The toughest assignment is Martin. Not only because the catcher made good on his goal to enhance his market value here during his two-year, $17 million stay -- perhaps beyond what the Pirates can or are willing to pay -- but also because there is no firm contingency plan behind him.

Martin has expressed his fondness for Pittsburgh and for the Pirates, calling the past two seasons the most enjoyable of his career. And it means nothing when the lights dim and the cheers fade. A.J. Burnett went out the door with the same sentiments, and never looked back.

"We would love nothing more than to have Russell Martin in a Pirates uniform for years to come," Huntington said, "and are going to do everything we can to try to keep Russ here. And if we don't have enough, then we'll do our best to find the next Martin."

A Pandora's box is about to pop open, because fans clearly feel they have underwritten checks for Martin, Volquez and Liriano -- the trio earned a combined $21.5 million in 2014 -- with their franchise-record attendance of 2,442,564. Yet that overlooks the fact that, with PNC Park's smaller capacity, the Pirates still only ranked ninth in the National League in attendance.

"[Pirates chairman] Bob [Nutting] has done a great job of putting whatever we make back into the club. The more revenue we generate, the more we can spend," Huntington said, then followed up with the caveat, keeping that attendance in the context of the rest of the league, that "it may not have the impact that everyone thinks it should or wants it to."

Arbitration-eligible: Pitchers Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Mark Melancon, Jeanmar Gomez, John Axford and Vance Worley; catcher Chris Stewart; infielders Alvarez, Walker, Harrison, Gaby Sanchez, Ike Davis and Morel; outfielder Travis Snider.

Free agents: Marin, Volquez, Liriano, Barmes

Rotation: It has to be rebuilt. With 55, the Pirates had the fewest wins by starters of any of the 10 postseason teams, so it was already sketchy, and now becomes even more vague. Gerrit Cole is locked in as the ace, with Worley and Jeff Locke behind him. Two projected 2015 starters will still be recovering from injuries (Jameson Taillon, Tommy John; Charlie Morton, sports hernia), and the gloss appears off two other prior probables (Stolmy Pimentel, Gomez).

Bullpen: The Bucs may choose to rebuild. They took the opposite route this season, keeping it intact, and it didn't work out for the best. Melancon, Hughes and the lefties -- Justin Wilson and Watson -- remain the foundation. John Holdzkom will be accommodated; southpaw Bobby LaFromboise will get a long look. The Pirates, as much as they dote on the "big arm," may hunt for or audition a new closer to be able to return Melancon to his superb setup role.

Catcher: A vacuum. The free-agent class is barren, enhancing Martin's value and offering no alternatives. Tony Sanchez appears to have been supplanted as catcher-in-waiting by Elias Diaz, who may not be considered ready. Sanchez and the underrated Stewart could be a half-season bridge to Diaz, a 24-year-old defensive force.

First base: Still a puzzle. The Pirates' concerns here are reflected by the fact they're trying out everyone from top outfield prospect Josh Bell to Alvarez at first base. They like Davis' plate discipline and potential power, but his struggles to hit lefties rules him out as an everyday option. The Bucs have not had a regular first baseman -- one who makes more than 110 starts there -- since Adam LaRoche in 2008.

Second base: In good hands. Walker allayed any offensive concerns by producing from both sides of the plate, and his defense is underrated, mostly due to metrics. Having two more rounds of arbitration will be very costly, so he is a definite candidate for a long-term extension. The Pirates will be looking for reserve depth. They can't go through another year with the likes of Michael Martinez and Jayson Nix.

Shortstop: Solid. With one slow-starting season as the regular under his belt, Jordy Mercer is poised to take his place among the game's elite. By midseason, intriguing prospect Alen Hanson could move in as a versatile utility infielder, and this is his primary position.

Third base: A quandary. Alvarez still envisions himself as a third baseman, reluctantly keeping first base in play as an option. But now there is an All-Star and National League MVP Award candidate in his way -- a guy by name of Harrison. The Pirates would entertain dealing Alvarez, but not at the low point of his market value, where he is now.

Outfield: Set. Don't have any concerns about Gregory Polanco's final two months; the youngster just wore down. He will solidly, often spectacularly, take his place alongside Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte is that Dream Outfield. Snider may have to resume being an excellent, versatile No. 4 man.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Resilient Pirates dug deep to make it back to playoffs

Behind Harrison, Volquez and Co., Bucs overcame slow start for Wild Card berth

Resilient Pirates dug deep to make it back to playoffs

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates' 2014 season ended in the type of disappointment a generation of Buccos faithful could have only fantasized about: A loss in a postseason game.

But a year after ending one trend, these Pirates have begun a new tradition -- not only of winning, but of making playoffs. Their calendar now includes Buctober. The Boys of Bummer have grown into the Men of Autumn.

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Yet, other than the winning and the record black-and-gold crowds flocking to PNC Park to share the experience, the seasons of 2013 and '14 had little in common.

Last season was a parade, led by a National League Most Valuable Player Award winner (Andrew McCutchen), a league co-homer leader (Pedro Alvarez), a Comeback Player of the Year Award winner (Francisco Liriano) and an All-Star closer (Jason Grilli). Those Pirates rolled with the Majors' best record for much of the season.

These Pirates, as manager Clint Hurdle put it, "had to dig ourselves out of the dirt."

Alvarez crashed offensively, even before throwing issues and ultimately injury made him vanish. Grilli lost his mojo, then his job, and quickly his Pirates uniform. Liriano had one win as of July 22.

By May 20, the Pirates were eight games below .500 (18-26). As late as June 22, they had a losing record (37-38). As late as Aug. 19, they were barely above break-even (64-62).

Then they dug deep, and the digging began. From Aug. 19 until their Sept. 23 clincher of a postseason berth, the Bucs not only went 22-9, but their nine losses were by a total of 11 runs. They were in every game, fighting and watching each other's back, and they won most of them.

"I love our club," Hurdle said. "I loved the club last year, but I love this one for a lot of different reasons. The resiliency of the guys who have been able to continue to post up, the men we've had to add in. In any sport, you'll find the best teams are the ones where somebody just pops up, shows up. You've got a bunch of different stories you didn't have coming in."

Ultimately, it ended with a brief postseason appearance awash with irony.

After being so aware of how they were muffled by top-notch pitching in their final two postseason games of 2013 -- Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals held them to a run in each -- the Bucs' offensive focus was on developing a deeper, more fundamentally sound lineup. They followed through on that for 162 regular season games, across which they abetted their power with discipline (a.330 on-base percentage that was second in the NL) and rallies mushroomed by clutch two-out hitting.

"This club developed an offensive identity, that of a collective group effort. I like the length of the lineup," Hurdle said.

Yet, when it came to another October run-in with an ace, they again couldn't connect the dots or fill in the blanks, as the Giants' Madison Bumgarner shut them out on four hits.

Record: 88-74, 2nd place in NL Central, No. 1 NL Wild Card.

Defining moment: May 18, the nightcap of a doubleheader in Yankee Stadium. Outfielders Starling Marte and Jose Tabata both incurred leg injuries in a first-game loss that dropped the Bucs' record to 17-25. Josh Harrison, who had a total of 51 at-bats in the first 42 games, had to go into the breach and into left field. In the top of the seventh, he homered to snap a 3-3 tie. In the bottom of the eighth, he dove head-long into the left-field corner for a spectacular catch that protected the lead he had provided. After that, Harrison became a constant, starting 115 of the remaining 120 games at four positions, ultimately as the everyday third baseman.

What went right: If measured against preseason expectations, only the unveiling of Jordy Mercer as the regular shortstop and the consistency of McCutchen qualify. Mercer displayed terrific range to his right and a strong arm, and he overcame a nightmarish April with the bat to post a solid season. Despite the first DL stint of his career, McCutchen (.314, 25, 83) banked a season eerily similar to his MVP Award year (.317, 21, 84).

Topping modest expectations, on the other hand were Neil Walker, who set a club record for second basemen with 23 homers, Mark Melancon, who inherited Grilli's job in mid-June and wound up with 33 saves, and Russell Martin, who exceeded his known defensive value by raising his average 64 points to .290 and his OPS by 129 to .832.

What went wrong: Unable to build on his 36-homer 2013 season climaxed by a very strong postseason, Alvarez went cold just as the rest of the team heated up and had just three homers after the All-Star break. In mid-June, three-fifths of the season-opening rotation was down (Gerrit Cole and Liriano both disabled) or out (Wandy Rodriguez's futility led to his May 30 release). Team brass misjudged their projections of the Gaby Sanchez-Ike Davis first base platoon, as the tandem contributed 17 homers, a .226 average and an OPS of .689 -- giving the Bucs the second-lowest production at the position in the NL.

Biggest surprise: Jeff Locke. Surprised by this choice? So were the Pirates. The brass had essentially written him off after his 2013 second-half fade, banishing him to Triple-A Indianapolis. When the rotation was in shambles, he got a call and responded with a 2.38 ERA in eight starts leading up to the All-Star break, and overall he had 13 quality starts among his 21. The Bucs would not have made the postseason without his contributions.

Hitter of the year: McCutchen. Year? How about of the half-century, at least among center fielders? With a .314 average, .410 on-base percentage and .542 slugging average, he became the second center fielder in history to reach the .300/.400/.500 split for a third consecutive season, following Mickey Mantle in 1954-58.

Pitcher of the year: Edinson Volquez. He wasn't only better than in 2013 -- he was tremendous. Controlling his emotions, Volquez controlled hitters every fifth day, dominantly. His season line was impressive as a whole (13-7, 3.04), but here is our favorite take: Deducting his three poorest starts -- even the best have their off days -- leaves him at 13-4 with a 2.25 for his other 28.

Rookie of the year: Gregory Polanco. By default, it has to be him. Until September promotions, he was the only rookie to see substantial action. Even if the ensuing two months could not keep up, his arrival certainly lived up to the anticipation, as he broke in with an 11-game hitting streak and hit in 14 of his first 16 games.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Pending free agent Martin feels the love in Pittsburgh

Fans chant 'Re-sign Russ' during possible final at-bat of catcher's Pirates tenure

Pending free agent Martin feels the love in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH -- While some of the record PNC Park crowd scattered over the Allegheny River in an effort to beat traffic, the ones who remained during the ninth inning of the Pirates' 8-0 season-ending loss to the Giants on Wednesday night realized and appreciated what was happening.

Russell Martin -- the 31-year-old Bucs catcher who has had a career season and turned into a beloved figure -- led off the final half inning of the National League Wild Card Game to a chant of "Re-sign Russ!"

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  Date   Result Highlights
  Oct. 1   SF 8, PIT 0 video
Martin swung at the first pitch he saw, flied out to center and jogged back to the dugout in what could be his last moment in a Pirates uniform.

Martin, who became a prized free agent-to-be two outs later, tipped his helmet before descending down the dugout steps.

"To get that type of reaction from a crowd, especially when you're losing a big game, that was definitely one of the coolest moments I think I've had in baseball," Martin said.

Because of his 2014 campaign in which he hit .290/.402/.430 and added a substantial presence behind the plate, Martin is expected to sign a hearty contract before the start of next season. The small-market Pirates don't typically deal in big-money multiyear contracts, and there's a good chance Martin -- who signed for two years and $17 million two offseasons ago -- may end up elsewhere.

Just minutes after the Pirates' season ended in the one-game playoff, Martin said he had not given any thought to what may happen in the next few months. But he did note he "had more fun playing baseball here than I have my whole career."

Martin, who had one of the Bucs' four hits in the loss, added that he'd keep that in mind when the time comes to make a decision on his future.

"Who knows what's going to happen," the catcher said. "I definitely know that I enjoyed my time here. Playing for this city, playing for these fans, it's been great. Hopefully I get the opportunity to do it some more."

Like Martin, Edinson Volquez will be a free agent this offseason. Though Volquez lost the Pirates' final game, he also recharged his career in Pittsburgh, and the right-hander said he owed some of that to Martin.

"No offense to the other catchers I've played with, but Russell is the best guy I've worked with," Volquez said. "He controls the game, he's a smart guy, he's a passionate guy, he loves the game. I'd play with him anywhere he goes."

Where Martin goes is the biggest question of the Pirates' offseason. Pittsburgh fans are hoping it's nowhere.

Stephen Pianovich is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Fade to black: Pirates fall in Wild Card shutout

Volquez serves up grand slam, while bats are blanked by Bumgarner

Fade to black: Pirates fall in Wild Card shutout

PITTSBURGH -- After two days of plots, subplots and plotting, Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford boiled the National League Wild Card Game down to a one-act drama. He took Edinson Volquez out of PNC Park, and took that notorious PNC Park crowd out of the game.

Crawford's fourth-inning grand slam Wednesday night also took the Pirates out of the 2014 postseason, dooming them to an 8-0 loss on Madison Bumgarner's four-hit masterpiece.

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So while the Pirates try to get over a more inglorious end to their quest for October glory than last fall's five-game NL Division Series loss to the Cardinals, the Giants move on to Washington to meet the Nationals in the '14 NLDS.

"It's a game," manager Clint Hurdle said of baseball, echoing an oft-heard sentiment, "designed to break your heart."

Hurdle was not speaking of this specific game, too lopsided to smart, matching the Bucs' largest losing margin since May 31. But rather of the hopes squashed.

Making an early departure from a ballpark that had buzzed with the electricity plugged in by a record crowd, fans were already second-guessing Hurdle's decision to start Gerrit Cole in Sunday's regular-season finale rather than save his 97-mph heat for this game. However, the Wild Card defeat was not about Pittsburgh's pitcher, but about San Francisco's.

Figuratively speaking, the Pirates were asking, "Who was that guy?" It wasn't the one they had faced and defeated on July 28 in AT&T Park, or the one they had more recently scouted and discussed in their pregame meeting.

"It was a different game that he pitched, a different game than we'd scouted," Hurdle said, alluding to Bumgarner's pitching style. "He used all of his pitches. He was able to get his fastball in tight with the right-handers. He was able to spin the ball late. He also knew how to elevate. I mean, he had it working tonight."

"He was a little different than what we had on him," said Josh Harrison, who did have two of the four singles off Bumgarner -- not quite matching his 2-for-3 with a home run in that late-July meeting. "That's the name of the game ... making adjustments. In postseason baseball, he's not going to be the same as in the regular season."

"To me," said Jordy Mercer, the Bucs' biggest regular threat against left-handers, "he felt like a completely different pitcher. He was getting ahead and then throwing all his offspeed pitches where he wanted, keeping us off balance."

"Come Oct. 1, it's all thrown out the window," Harrison stressed. "It's totally different. It's almost like a chess match."

The Pirates got checkmated, and Bumgarner got knighted. The author already of an impressive playoff resume, Bumgarner turned in his first postseason complete game, walking one, striking out 10 and not letting the Bucs get a man as far as third base until it did not matter.

"Just knowing that you've been there before and knowing the success that we've had, it made a big difference for me," Bumgarner said.

The Giants doubled up on the scoring, after Volquez exited with no outs in the sixth, to save the Pirates from the sting of a one-swing exile from the playoffs. But with that one swing, producing the first grand slam by a shortstop in Major League postseason history, Crawford turned PNC Park from an airplane hangar into a library.

A park record of 40,629 wore black clothes and rose-colored glasses through three innings, as Volquez and Bumgarner matched zeros.

And then, the trap door out of October opened swiftly.

The heart of San Francisco's lineup set up Crawford by delivering on the threat implied by its track record against Volquez, who has made nine regular-season starts against the Giants since last beating them in 2008. Pablo Sandoval led off with a single -- his second hit of the game and eighth in 15 at-bats against Volquez. Hunter Pence, who has nine career RBIs against Volquez, also singled. Brandon Belt, a lifetime .474 hitter against Volquez, walked to load the bases.

Volquez attested to having intended to "go across the plate" on the 1-2 pitch to Crawford, "but the ball kept going to find his bat."

"Big swipe," Hurdle said. "Four‑run swipe right there. That one put us in the hole that eventually just got bigger."

Having to agree, Giants manager Bruce Bochy said, "It was huge. We're facing a guy [Volquez] that's been throwing the ball very well. You're looking for a timely hit, and we couldn't have gotten a bigger one there."

Bumgarner kept turning away the Bucs before and after Crawford's silencer. Through 5 1/3 innings, their only hit was a second-inning single by Russell Martin. They didn't get a man to second until they were already in a 4-0 hole, or a man to third until it was 8-0.

"We got outplayed," Neil Walker said. "Bumgarner went out there, he did what he wanted to do. He filled up the strike zone. He made it tough on us. He was good from the first pitch to the last pitch."

"We pushed the whole year. Fought and battled," said Volquez, long after having taken his walk off the mound still smiling over the roars that escorted him into the dugout. "I think we let the city down tonight. But it made me very happy and proud to get to pitch in front of everybody here."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Bucs don't pout after rout, reflect fondly on season

Bucs don't pout after rout, reflect fondly on season

PITTSBURGH -- During his session in the media interview room on Wednesday afternoon, Josh Harrison mentioned that the National League Wild Card Game isn't the ideal place for a team to find itself when postseason play begins.

"Honestly, anybody would love to win the division and stay away from this game, but somebody's got to do it," the Pittsburgh Pirates' All-Star infielder-outfielder said. "Regardless, it's still the playoffs."

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  Date   Result Highlights
  Oct. 1   SF 8, PIT 0 video

Sure, but it's a mighty risky proposition. Six months' worth of hard work and winning baseball can go out the window in a matter of a few hours if you don't win the one game, and that's what happened to Harrison and his teammates on Wednesday night, falling 8-0 to the San Francisco Giants.

The fact that the Pirates lost wasn't a shock. After all, they were facing a Giants squad that compiled the same record they did during the regular season (88-74), and had their ace -- 18-game winner Madison Bumgarner -- on the mound.

The stunning aspect of what transpired at PNC Park was the one-sided nature of the contest.

The Giants advanced to the NL Division Series against the Washington Nationals by virtue of a shutout rout over the Bucs, with Bumgarner allowing only four hits and striking out 10. In short, he looked very much like a guy who had pitched in a couple of World Series before.

It was a rough way for the Pirates to end their season, but they didn't lose sight of the successes they had together along the way in 2014, when they finished second to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central for the second consecutive year.

"We still got the opportunity to play a meaningful game in October. There were plenty of teams that played Sunday and then went home," Harrison said after the loss. "Nobody here is holding their head down. We're extremely proud of what we've done.

"Bumgarner had it going tonight. He made pitches when he needed to and kept us off the basepaths. They just played better than us. But this season as a whole, battling with these guys day in and day out, is something I'll always remember."

"Somebody has to win. Somebody has to lose," added Bucs starter Edinson Volquez, who surrendered five runs in five-plus innings -- the crushing blow being a grand slam by Brandon Crawford over the right-field wall in the fourth inning. "Not many people expected the Pittsburgh Pirates to go to the playoffs this year, and we did it. We lost tonight, but we're still proud of what we did the whole season long."

Pittsburgh earned the right to host the NL Wild Card Game for the second straight year by going 17-6 in its final 23 regular-season games, even though it finished with back-to-back losses in Cincinnati this past weekend.

The Pirates have great respect for Bumgarner, and they know they saw him at his best on Wednesday night.

"He was fantastic," Pittsburgh closer Mark Melancon said. "He had 18 wins this year. You don't do that just by going out there and being average. We knew we were in for a big challenge, and sure enough, he was more than a big challenge.

"But I'm extremely proud of this group. We have such a great group. It's so disappointing to have to leave tonight. After 162 games, it came down to this game. It was a grind all year and it was a blast. You have the downs, but you always remember the ups."

"We've got a lot of talent in this clubhouse and a lot of people that had great years," Bucs second baseman Neil Walker added. "Unfortunately, we didn't reach our goals, but we should still be proud as a group, because we accomplished a lot of good things. This is a special group, and we play very well together and we care very much for each other.

"There's certainly some disappointment, but you can't forget about the fact there's two teams on the field. We got outplayed tonight. Bumgarner went out and did what he wanted to do. He filled up the strike zone and he made it tough on us. When they got up early, we tried to scratch and claw our way back. But he was good from the first pitch to the last pitch."

Jim Lachimia is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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September stud Volquez stung by homer in October

After stellar month earns him Wild Card Game start, righty allows five runs -- four on one swing

September stud Volquez stung by homer in October

PITTSBURGH -- Pirates right-hander Edinson Volquez threw 83 pitches in the most important start of his career. There's one pitch he desperately wishes he could have back.

Volquez allowed a grand slam to Brandon Crawford in the fourth inning of Wednesday night's National League Wild Card Game against the Giants, by far the most impactful swing of an 8-0 drubbing. On a 1-2 curveball, Crawford lifted a fly ball to the seats in right field.

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"[Missing the strike zone] was part of the plan. Make these guys chase, up in the zone," Volquez said. "Then I make a mistake to Crawford, and he hit it out -- it's part of the game. He put a good swing on the ball and hit it out. I was trying to get the ball to go across the plate, but the ball kept going to find his bat."

  Date   Result Highlights
  Oct. 1   SF 8, PIT 0 video
Catcher Russell Martin said that throwing breaking balls to Crawford was also part of the game plan. But the blast, which was the first postseason grand slam by a shortstop, silenced a record crowd of 40,629 at PNC Park and gave San Francisco a 4-0 lead. Volquez would be charged with another run in the sixth inning, as Hunter Pence -- whom Volquez walked to start the frame -- scored on a Brandon Belt single against reliever Justin Wilson. In five-plus innings, Volquez allowed five hits, walked three and struck out three.

"He had a lot of 3-2 counts. We didn't get at hitters as much as we wanted to, didn't really put them away," Martin said. "We had a few walks, they strung some hits together and one swing of the bat, it was a big blow. I felt like he competed."

The Bucs chose to start the 31-year-old -- who rejuvenated his career in Pittsburgh this season -- in the do-or-die game after they elected to throw Gerrit Cole on Sunday against the Reds with the chance of tying for the NL Central lead still in play.

Meanwhile, Giants ace Madison Bumgarner mowed through the Pirates' lineup, allowing just four hits in a complete-game shutout.

It happened to be Bumgarner's spot in the rotation for the Giants. And while Bucs manager Clint Hurdle took some outside criticism for starting Cole on Sunday, he stood by the decision.

"For me, it reinforces the fact of the importance of winning your division," Hurdle said. "If you don't have a chance to win your division, maybe you can make some other adjustments along the way to set up for a Wild Card Game."

Volquez was rested, and he also made his case with a 2.20 second-half ERA. Crawford's home run was the first against the right-hander since the Phillies' Freddy Galvis took him deep on Sept. 9. Volquez allowed just four earned runs in five September starts.

The last time Volquez surrendered four or more in an outing was on July 21 against the Dodgers. It was also the date of his last loss.

Stephen Pianovich is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Oct. 1, Hurdle Wild Card postgame interview

Oct. 1, Hurdle Wild Card postgame interview

Q. Congratulations, a fine season. I imagine that's the message you probably shared with your players before you came here. But besides that, Volquez held off the Giants into the fourth inning but seemed to be missing his spark quite a bit. Was he just not at his sharpest?

CLINT HURDLE: I think for the first three we've seen what we've seen from him in the past. The ability you know, maybe let guys on base and the ability to make pitches and work through it. The wall complicated things, a hanging breaking ball to Crawford up, middle in. We wanted to go down back foot, missed a spot.

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Big swipe. Four‑run swipe right there. We haven't run one of those with Edinson on the mound second half of the season. That one put us in the hole that eventually just got bigger.

Q. Coach, was there any point in the dugout that there was any specific talk of a weakness where you thought that you guys could break through Bumgarner?

CLINT HURDLE: We continued to have conversations. The one thing that Bumgarner did so exceptional, he did a bunch of things well tonight. It was a different game that he pitched, a different game that we'd seen scouted. He used all of his pitches. He was able to get his fastball in tight with the right handers. He was able to spin the ball late, dump it late for chase. Used some change‑ups early after guys he'd showed the fastball to during it. He also knew how to elevate. I mean, he had it working tonight.

Absolutely, a professional, well‑pitched game by him. We tried to counter punch, we just couldn't muster up anything.

Q. What do you tell this group of young men after a great season they've had some obviously, the expectation is very high going into the postseason. When it ends like this, what message do you send to them? What words did you impart to them?

CLINT HURDLE: I'll tell you some of it, but some of it's just for them. The part I didn't share with him because I just didn't want to, going through my mind, I heard A. Bartlett Giamatti put it ‑‑ I'm going to paraphrase it. It's a wonderfully crafted game designed to break your heart.

I told them tonight feel what you need to feel. We all feel disappointment. There should not be any shame. You walk out of this clubhouse head held high. You look people in the eye. We created something here that's becoming special.

First two years here, we pushed into the second half of the season, got pushed back. Back to back years, we pushed through the season and found our way into the playoffs. What reinforces this whole playoff set more than anything to me now is the importance of winning the division. We've been on both sides of this wild card coin.

Q. Clint, what were your thoughts at the end of the game with the showing of support and appreciation by the fans to Russell Martin?

CLINT HURDLE: It's excellent. They're appreciating the volume of work. For two years, they've watched this guy lay it all out like many of our men have and have been very appreciative of the difference he's been able to make in our ball club ‑‑ behind the plate, working with the pitchers, controlling the running game, the offensive part of it. He has been a pleasure and a very productive player for us.

Our fan base is excellent. They showed up this year 2.4 something strong, all‑time attendance record. They broke another record tonight. They appreciate hard work. They appreciate effort. They appreciate the blue collar mentality, and Russell showed them that the last two seasons.

Q. Clint, just by circumstance, the Giants were able to hold back Bumgarner for this game, and last year we saw Liriano dominate. I guess that just shows the premium on ace level pitching in these sorts of situations.

CLINT HURDLE: No doubt, no doubt. This is a guy that's pitched in the World Series twice. He's got quite a strong resume. And, again, this game is what it is. It's elimination game.

So for me, it reinforces the fact of the importance of winning your division. If you don't have a chance to win your division, maybe you can make some other adjustments along the way to set up for a wild card game.

Take nothing away from the Giants. I want to congratulate them. They're a good ball club. They were a better ball club than we were tonight. We finished short, and we'll ‑‑ but we laid it all out for everybody every night. We emptied the bucket for our fans every night we played, all 163 games.

Q. Clint, it didn't look really good for your team when you got swept in St. Louis at the beginning of September, but from then on, you kicked it in gear. How proud are you of the way your team responded when it looked like things were bad and came back and made it this far?

CLINT HURDLE: I did share that with him at the end. I'm honored to be their manager. I'm proud of each and every man and each and every coach because we had multiple opportunities to get tested and challenged, and we weren't able ‑‑ we didn't back down.We didn't go away. We stayed resilient. We persevered. We played to our strengths.

We have a strong pack, and that's what we play to, that pack mentality. So it was 21 years before there was a playoff game here, and we've pushed it back‑to‑back years. We've got more work to do because we definitely, we all want to play longer. We want to find a way to bring that sixth world championship back to Pittsburgh.

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Burgh Man makes postseason appearance at PNC Park

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Burgh Man makes postseason appearance at PNC Park

It's a disco ball ... it's a mobile rave ... it's BURGH MAN!

While the Pirates' second consecutive NL Wild Card appearance resulted in an 8-0 loss to the Giants, there was still plenty of positive energy to be had on the bridge outside PNC Park. It was there that Pittsburgh's glow stick-adorned, bowling pin-slinging superfan made an October appearance: 

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Tekulve gets PNC crowd pumped up with first pitch

Ex-Bucs All-Star reliever, who helped seal 1979 World Series, is coming off heart transplant

Tekulve gets PNC crowd pumped up with first pitch

PITTSBURGH -- Greeted by a standing ovation, and less than a month removed from a heart transplant, Kent Tekulve was back in a No. 27 Pirates jersey on Wednesday night. The man who threw the final pitch the last time the Bucs won the World Series tossed the first pitch of their 2014 postseason.

Tekulve, 67, underwent the procedure on Sept. 5, and the former All-Star reliever was back in the public spotlight.

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Tekulve threw to current reliever Jared Hughes, and he received a roar from the soldout black-clad PNC Park crowd. Afterward, he waved a black towel above his head, inciting more cheers.

Tekulve didn't throw it in his usual submarine style from his playing days, when he spent parts of 12 seasons with the Bucs. He finished his 16-year career -- which included a championship in 1979 -- with 194 saves, and he has served as an analyst on Pirates broadcasts.

Stephen Pianovich is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Did You Know? 2014 NL Wild Card Game

Did You Know? 2014 NL Wild Card Game

The Giants beat the Pirates, 8-0, in Wednesday night's National League Wild Card Game at PNC Park, advancing to the NL Division Series against the Nationals. San Francisco starter Madison Bumgarner was masterful in tossing a shutout on 109 pitches, while Brandon Crawford hit a fourth-inning grand slam that proved to be more than enough support.

Here's what you should know:

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• Dating to Game 2 of the 2012 World Series, Bumgarner has tossed 16 consecutive scoreless innings in the postseason. Dating to a relief appearance in Game 6 of the 2010 NL Championship Series, Bumgarner has tossed 19 consecutive scoreless frames in postseason road games.

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  Oct. 1   SF 8, PIT 0 video

• Bumgarner is the first Giants starter to toss a postseason shutout since Tim Lincecum did so in Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS against Atlanta.

• Bumgarner's game score, a statistic developed by statistician Bill James to quantify individual pitching performances, was 88, the highest for a postseason starter since Justin Verlander scored 89 in Game 5 of the 2012 AL Division Series against the A's (also a shutout).

• Prior to Crawford's fourth-inning grand slam, he had two career grand slams -- including one as his first career hit on May 27, 2011, in Milwaukee (Major League debut). He is the first shortstop to hit a slam in MLB postseason history.

• The Giants have won a franchise record eight straight postseason games dating to Game 5 of the 2012 NLCS against St. Louis.

• San Francisco has also won seven consecutive postseason elimination games (coming back from a 2-0 series deficit in the 2012 NLDS and a 3-1 deficit in the 2012 NLCS before sweeping the Tigers in that year's World Series), tying the Royals -- who won the AL Wild Card Game over the A's on Tuesday -- for the longest streak in playoff history.

Kansas City trailed the Blue Jays, 3-1, in the 1985 ALCS and the Cardinals, 3-1, in that year's World Series and won both.

• Prior to Wednesday's Wild Card Game, Pirates starter Edinson Volquez had not allowed five earned runs in an outing since surrendering five on July 21 against the Dodgers at PNC Park.

Manny Randhawa is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Hurdle opts to fortify 'pen for Wild Card roster

Bucs manager goes with eight-man relief corps for game against Giants

Hurdle opts to fortify 'pen for Wild Card roster

PITTSBURGH -- Rookie pitchers John Holdzkom and left-hander Bobby LaFromboise were included on the Pirates' roster for Wednesday night's National League Wild Card Game, as announced by manager Clint Hurdle.

Holdzkom and LaFromboise, both September callups to the expanded roster, will be part of an eight-man bullpen behind starter Edinson Volquez.

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With the unique one-time roster for this one game, starters Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano were both left off, although Jeff Locke and Vance Worley will also be in the bullpen for possible long-relief duty.

"What happens [if] there's a line drive hit off Volquez's shin third pitch of the game? I want a volume guy [available]," Hurdle said in his pregame media session. "I want a guy who has some pitches to take the ball."

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  Oct. 1   SF 8, PIT 0 video

The rest of the bullpen includes Jared Hughes, Mark Melancon and lefties Tony Watson and Justin Wilson. Omitted is Jeanmar Gomez, a season-long bullpen cog.

"We're being game-specific here," Hurdle said, explaining the inclusion of four southpaws among the eight available relievers. "[The Giants] are going to push six left‑handed hitters in this lineup and have all the rest of the right‑handed bench players. That's why Bobby's ... available. That's why Gomez isn't included."

As expected, Tony Sanchez is a third catcher on the roster in the event that starter Russell Martin (left hamstring) and top backup Chris Stewart (left wrist) experience complications from injuries that shorten their nights.

In addition to expected starters Gaby Sanchez, Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, infielders Clint Barmes, Ike Davis and Brent Morel are on the roster.

The speed of Chase d'Arnaud, used as an occasional pinch-runner in September, was trumped by Morel's versatility.

"Morel can play first. He can play third," Hurdle said. "To go into this game with only one extra infielder, Clint Barmes, we thought might be challenging."

Outfielders Gregory Polanco, Jose Tabata and Andrew Lambo will back up the starting trio of Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Travis Snider.

The Pirates are able to carry all the extra position players because unlike the regular-season 25-man roster comprised of a dozen pitchers -- five starters and seven relievers -- the nine-man staff for the Wild Card Game frees up three extra spots.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Giants, Bucs traveled similar paths to Wild Card Game

Giants, Bucs traveled similar paths to Wild Card Game

PITTSBURGH -- The Giants and Pirates traveled similar roads to get here. That's not important now. Right, Hunter Pence?

"That's the beauty of it," San Francisco's right fielder said.

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Well, that's one way of looking at it. To work for eight months, to endure injuries and slumps and all the rest, and then to lay it all on the line for one game seems, well, cruel.

"Seriously, it's a beautiful thing," Pence said. "We're right where we're supposed to be."

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  Oct. 1   SF 8, PIT 0 video

Indeed, that may be the beauty of thing. The Giants and Pirates are in the postseason, and they're both good enough to win the World Series. First, though, there's this little matter of playing the National League Wild Card Game at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday (ESPN). Both managers will tell you that their clubs revealed plenty of good things about themselves along the way. Both are resilient and determined. Both are confident, too. Both believe they're capable of writing whatever ending they want to write.

If you took a snapshot of the Giants and Pirates at certain points of the season, you might have caught a team that looked like the best in baseball. At certain other points, both teams looked like clubs going nowhere. Both were hit hard by injuries. Both had stretches when they didn't play well.

"We had to dig this one out of the dirt," Bucs manager Clint Hurdle said.

He's referring to the fact that his team was 18-26 on May 2 and didn't clear .500 for good until June 26.

"We never felt sorry for ourselves," Pittsburgh third baseman Josh Harrison said. "When we were eight [games] under, we didn't even know we were eight under. I know people probably panicked, but nobody in here panicked. We feed off each other and believe in each other."

The Pirates evolved during the season. Injuries allowed Hurdle to start writing Harrison's name in the lineup more often. Harrison started the season as a reserve, but he ended up starting 21 games in left, 23 in right, 13 at second, four at short and 55 at third.

And a star was born. Harrison batted .315 and made the NL All-Star team.

Three-fifths of Pittsburgh's starting rotation got hurt as well, but even that has been a blessing in disguise.

The Pirates begin the postseason with no starter having thrown 200 innings and with only Wednesday starter Edinson Volquez having made 30 starts. As former Bucs manager Jim Leyland often said, "It's not the team with the best pitching in October. It's the team with the healthiest pitching."

The Pirates are healthy, and they're rolling. They finished on a 17-6 kick, with every part of the team clicking.

"We had to be steadfast, stubborn," Hurdle said. "We had to trust our guys and trust each other to continue to play. We believe we had enough talent to fight our way into this."

Andrew McCutchen (.378), Harrison (.330) and Starling Marte (.366) all had great finishes during the closing stretch.

And that fresh rotation? Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and Volquez were 10-0 with a 1.88 ERA during the 17-6 finish.

Having endured the tough years, McCutchen said a slow start was no big deal.

"I always say -- I somewhat make a joke of it -- but we know how it feels to lose," McCutchen said. "When we're down, it's not really a big deal for us. We lost for a very long time. We know what we're capable of doing."

The Giants were 43-21 on June 8 and leading the NL West by 10 games. They were hitting home runs like crazy and looking pretty much unstoppable.

Only San Francisco did stop, losing 18 of its next 23. The Giants stopped scoring runs. They were hit hard by injuries, especially to center fielder Angel Pagan and first baseman Brandon Belt. They would lose right-hander Matt Cain as well. Only Belt is available for the postseason.

And then just when it looked like the Giants would disappear from the radar, they rallied nicely and got within two games of the Dodgers in the NL West on Sept. 17.

San Francisco faded some down the stretch, but here it is back in the postseason for the third time in five years. The Giants have a large group of players that won the World Series in 2010 and '12, so there's a confidence about what's ahead.

"I think it's been a good year," San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy said. "Challenging? No question. With our injuries, our play, it's been a tale of two teams."

Regardless of which of those teams shows up Wednesday night, these Giants are special to their manager.

"The one constant, which I love about these guys, they're fighters," Bochy said. "They don't get down. They keep pushing. They focus for it as well as any group I've had. That's what it took to get here.

"If you look at certain points of the season, we very easily could have just collapsed. But they found a way to get back on track, and I compliment them. I'm just glad they're here and getting a chance."

The Pirates feel exactly the same way.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Driving force: McCutchen leads with grit, selflessness

Pirates star inspires team by quietly playing through pain of fractured rib

Driving force: McCutchen leads with grit, selflessness

PITTSBURGH -- "Another day, another guy." That could be the subhead to another headline Pirates season. It is definitely how the Bucs see themselves, individuals blended into a team.

In support of that image, no one player is deemed more vital than another. That might play around the apocryphal campfire, but don't you believe it. Andrew McCutchen is still the engine under this hood.

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It is not just the performance, substantial as it is. It goes beyond the clutch swings, the thefts of bases and hits, the patience and trust to take being pitched around and leave it up to the next guy.

It's the quiet, selfless, pain-tolerant way McCutchen leads, making it impossible for others not to follow.

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  Oct. 1   SF 8, PIT 0 video

McCutchen suffered a rib fracture on Aug. 3. A fractured rib. It was carefully described as an avulsion rib fracture, downgrading it to merely a fragment breaking off. Regardless, a baseball player, for whom torque affects everything, had a fractured rib.

McCutchen was off the disabled list and back on the field in the minimum 15 days.

"We know how tough a guy Andrew is," Neil Walker said during Tuesday's workout at PNC Park before Wednesday's National League Wild Card Game against the Giants (8 p.m. ET on ESPN). "The fact it was his first time on the DL tells you he plays through a lot of stuff, a lot of situations maybe other guys couldn't."

Tough? His first week back, McCutchen had to leave three games early when otherwise normal movements -- a swing, a leap in the outfield, a burst on the bases -- aggravated the injury.

But the Pirates were at the end of a seven-game losing streak -- until then, their longest skid had been four games, once -- so McCutchen returned ASAP, saying whenever asked, "I'm good enough to play."

"It took some time," McCutchen said Tuesday, "but now, I feel really good, right where I need to be. There's no issues, nothing hindering me from doing what I want to do. So I feel really good."

When McCutchen first merged back into the lineup, there were "quite a few things, physically" still bothering him, he now admitted.

"Just getting back in the swing of things, to get myself prepared, getting back to that baseball speed ... that took some time," McCutchen said.

"It was good to see him back in two weeks," Josh Harrison said. "With an injury like that, you never know how long it could've kept him out. We were excited when he returned, but it meant more to him. We wanted him to take his time, to be healthy enough to play at the level he needed."

How about, a higher level?

Up until his injury, McCutchen was batting .311 with an OPS of .947. From his return to the wire, he batted .324 with an OPS of .968. We repeat: With a healing rib fracture.

Putting it all together, McCutchen led the NL with an OPS of .952 and an on-base percentage of .410, while tying for the lead with 69 extra-base hits and finishing third in the batting race at .314.

This was the third straight season McCutchen reached those .300/.400/.900 split levels. A year ago, he had become the fourth center fielder to put such seasons back to back, following Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. Now he has threepeated -- the only center fielder other than Mantle (1954-58) to pull that off.

Name-dropping Mantle and Mays is very appropriate in this context, given Pirates manager Clint Hurdle's recollection of his first sighting of McCutchen.

It was during the summer of 2010, when Hurdle was serving as the hitting coach of the Texas Rangers as the Bucs and their 23-year-old outfielder went to Arlington for a late-June Interleague series.

"The thing that jumped out," Hurdle recalled, "is he went gap to gap a half-dozen times, running down stuff that we hit like nobody we had seen the entire season. The closest thing to him was our guy at the time, [Josh] Hamilton, and when Hamilton went on a streak, you thought you were watching Mickey Mantle.

"I'm watching McCutchen thinking, 'Dude, if that's Mantle, this might be Mays.'"

You bet Hurdle kept that impression in mind when months later he interviewed for the Pirates' managerial opening. That was one reason he sought the job: He knew he had a cornerstone in place.

"Yes, yes. He's special, that was my takeaway," Hurdle said. "And he's grown every year. When he talks, he's E.F. Hutton: People listen. 'Cornerstone' would be a good word."

On Tuesday, McCutchen talked softly. He hoped his brothers in the clubhouse were listening, because waves of media were asking them about the unbearable pressure of win-it-all games like the Wild Card Game.

Stepping in front of the media horde congregated by his locker, McCutchen asked, "Why so many people here? It's just another day at the ballpark."

"That's how I play every day," McCutchen later said. "To win. That's how we should take it. Just another game we're out there trying to win."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Rally Central: Pirates fans show support

Crowd, Bucs members gather in downtown Pittsburgh on eve of Wild Card Game

Rally Central: Pirates fans show support

PITTSBURGH -- With the city buzzing about Buctober for the second consecutive year, fans gathered for a Pirates rally in Market Square the day before the National League Wild Card Game against the Giants (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN). Some fans came on their lunch break, and a few expressed their regret for not wearing some black and gold.

Others planned accordingly. With his slacks rolled up to expose his striped socks, Pittsburgh fan Jeff Walters donned a black jacket and pirate hat -- and no, not a baseball cap with a "P." Walters and his cousin, Chris Miller, were both dressed like full-blown swashbucklers and were among a crowd of a few hundred who gathered in downtown Pittsburgh to show their support.

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"Who doesn't want to be a pirate? It's the best job in the world," said Miller, who along with Walters has been dressing up for games since August. They plan on having a whole crew of pirates with them in PNC Park's left-field rotunda Wednesday with a trip to the NL Division Series on the line.

While the rest of the fans in attendance may not have had the same outfit creativity, they cheered loudly, and many brought Pirates flags. The Pirate Parrot and the racing pierogies interacted throughout the crowd, while prominent Pirates figures took to the stage below a "Let's Go Bucs!" banner.

A few former players were introduced, and Steve Blass -- a Pirates pitcher from 1964-74 and a current broadcaster for the team -- took the microphone and addressed the crowd.

"This team is the perfect fit," Blass said, reflecting on the Bucs' 88-74 squad which had a chance at the NL Central title until losing Sunday in Cincinnati.

"It's a blue-collar Major League team, and this is a blue-collar city. They've been challenged, and they've responded. That's how this city is."

The fans, who varied in age, responded enthusiastically to Blass. One of those cheering was Chris Bolla, who's been a Pirates fan all of his life, since he was born in 1959.

Bolla's fandom reflects that of many lifelong Pittsburgh fans, who celebrated the team's success in the 1970s and the earlier '90s before seeing the team miss out on the playoffs for 21 years.

Bolla, who held a Pirates flag with "Raise the Jolly Roger" written on it throughout the rally, said the last two seasons have "taken away the pain."

"This is like Christmas in October," Bolla said. "It's Buctober Eve. This is fabulous, it's so cool."

Catcher Chris Stewart, members of the Pirates' coaching staff and front office were among the club figures introduced. And team president Frank Coonelly was the last person to address the crowd.

Coonelly pointed out that Giants catcher Buster Posey said he watched the Pirates beat the Reds in last season's NL Wild Card Game from his couch. Coonelly also reminded the fans that Posey said he was "looking forward to playing" in the environment. So, he left the crowd with a message:

"Let's send them back to the couch," Coonelly shouted.

Stephen Pianovich is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Holdzkom brings unknown quality to Pirates' 'pen

Tall righty began year in independent league; earns high praise for cutter

Holdzkom brings unknown quality to Pirates' 'pen

PITTSBURGH -- John Holdzkom looked around the Pirates' clubhouse overrun by media in town to cover Wednesday night's National League Wild Card Game (8 p.m. ET on ESPN) and had to smile.

"This is a typical crowd in Amarillo," said the reliever who a little more than three months ago was pitching independent ball in that Texas city.

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Wednesday night, Holdzkom will be in the PNC Park bullpen for a postseason Major League game.

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The ultimate definition of an "X factor," the 6-foot-7 right-hander is unfamiliar to opponents, and his downhill stuff -- cutter, splitter and palmball -- could be a valuable weapon. Of all the Pirates' possible playoff foes, depending on how deep they play, the only team that has seen Holdzkom is the Cardinals, against whom he made his big league debut on Sept. 2 by striking out the side.

The Washington Nationals scout who tracked the Bucs during the last week of the season, gathering intel for a possible NL Division Series meeting, was certainly impressed.

"That big guy," the scout said, not even yet sure of his name, "whew! The movement on that cutter … he's Mariano Rivera, five inches taller and five more [mph] on the pitch."

And this wasn't just any armchair scout, but Bob Boone, the former catching great who knows a few things about pitchers and pitches.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Huntington holds court about Bucs' chances in Q&A

Huntington holds court about Bucs' chances in Q&A

Neal Huntington has made it to the right side of the ledger.

Through the early years of his tenure as the Pirates' general manager, Huntington volunteered for baseball masochism. He worked below the surface, making moves and decisions maddeningly not reflected in neither the team's record nor in its direction.

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While Huntington dropped buzzwords like "process" and "plans," the Bucs kept dropping games. In his first four years on the job, the losses grew -- from 94 to 95 to 99 to 105. A frustrated fan base was getting restless.

Then the process kicked in. The wins mounted, from 57 to 72 to 79 to 94 to … the 2014 Pirates won't continue that pattern, but a second straight postseason appearance should make up for that.

  Date   Result Highlights
  Oct. 1   SF 8, PIT 0 video

During the Pirates' stay in Atlanta in the last week of the regular season, there were three significant developments: The Braves dismissed their GM, Frank Wren, for not being able to maneuver the team to its fourth postseason appearance in five years; the Bucs clinched a playoff berth; and Huntington marked the seventh anniversary of his hiring on Sept. 25, the day he sat down with MLB.com for a reflective Q&A.

MLB.com: Last year was such a monumental breakthrough for the team. This year validated one of your mandates, sustained competitiveness. Does that make this repeat more meaningful?

Huntington: To be able to repeat a postseason appearance is a great sign for the organization and for our fan base. We still want to get deeper in the playoffs so, while it is a good step, it's certainly not the last step.

MLB.com: In your view, what would make for a successful season, even while acknowledging that the ultimate goal of any team is to win the World Series?

Huntington: That's about it. A good season is one that ends with a parade in downtown.

MLB.com: A year ago, you were aggressive in making in-season moves, such as the end-of-August acquisitions of Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau. This time around, the opposite -- trusting your judgment that the in-house talent was good enough. Which takeaway is more rewarding?

Huntington: That's really tough to answer. We've had guys step up. This July 31 (non-waiver Trade Deadline) we wanted to, we were willing to, give up prospects as we did last August. We worked hard to find the right deal, large and small, and we couldn't find the right impact coming in the door to match the impact that would've been going out the door. We also liked the opportunities with guys coming up from Triple-A, or guys getting healthy, or guys showing signs of taking steps forward, so we didn't feel like we had as big a need as a year ago.

As crazy as that sounds, a team that was on its way to winning 90 games vs. a team fighting for its playoff life, we felt we had a nice balanced lineup. We felt we had the players to put us in the position we are today.

MLB.com: The Gregory Polanco experience. The first couple of months, I'm sure you were aware of everyone clamoring for you to get him here already. You held out for specific reasons, waiting for the right time. In retrospect, your beliefs have been validated. He has struggled and hasn't even played the last six weeks.

Huntington: I wish ... had Neil Walker stayed healthy (Josh Harrison had to take over at second in mid-June, creating a vacancy in right field) we would've led Gregory continue to develop. There's a reason why that Triple-A level exists, why most guys who have had success at the Major League level have experienced Triple-A beyond 250 at-bats. We've certainly experienced that -- had Walker not gotten hurt, Polanco might have had a smoother transition. There are valuable lessons to learn, and he was just on the front edge of learning them when we brought him up.

I hated doing it. I really did. But we felt like he was borderline ready.

MLB.com: How much do postseason matchups matter? The team you wind up playing -- how much can that influence your prospects?

Huntington: Certainly, there are teams on paper you match up better with. But in a short series, man, it's just about going out and executing. Sometimes the better teams win, but sometimes they don't. Just to have the opportunity to get there is great, but the challenge to advance through it is even better.

MLB.com: Is the postseason just buying you time before you have to dive into what figures to be a very difficult offseason, with a lot of big decisions awaiting?

Huntington: The guys in the clubhouse, their focus needs to be on winning and advancing deep ... but we've already begun the process of preparing for 2015 and beyond. I don't know if it delays anything from our standpoint ... it may delay our ability to execute plans. We hope the offseason begins as late as possible.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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