CLEARWATER, Fla. -- A perfect storm could be brewing for the Pirates' starting rotation. The opening foursome is approaching the regular season in lights-out mode, and the two in the wings are also taking flight. Pitching in nearby Dunedin against Toronto's Triple-A team to shy him away from the Phillies -- whom he'll face in the season's second game on April 7 -- Jeff Karstens pitched shutout ball for 7 1/3 innings, allowing three hits and punching out 10.
"Everything went very well for him," said manager Clint Hurdle, citing eyewitness reports. Karsten's effort followed James McDonald's seven innings of two-hit ball on Saturday against Houston and Erik Bedard's effort on Monday against the Orioles, whom he blanked for 5 2/3 innings on one hit before tiring.
Meanwhile, two stand-by right-handers are casting growing shadows.On Tuesday, A.J. Burnett took another step forward -- the only direction in which he has been heading since returning to camp on March 10, eight days after his eye surgery -- by throwing two innings and 48 pitches in a simulated game under the watchful eyes of pitching coach Ray Searage. "Ray was very encouraged by the outing," Hurdle said. "A.J. was very good and efficient. His breaking ball and off-speed came into play better in the second inning." Burnett is next due to go three innings in a Minor League game on Sunday, and beginning competitive pitching will be a sure sign of getting close. On Wednesday, Charlie Morton starts against the Rays, looking to build on the four shutout innings he threw at Detroit on Friday. So the two right-handers are on nearly identical throwing schedules, putting them on parallel paths into joining the rotation.