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With starting depth, rotation realizes need to perform

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PITTSBURGH -- James McDonald takes the ball for the Pirates in Thursday afternoon's finale of the season-opening series against the Cubs. McDonald will be looking for his first win since Aug. 28, when he enjoyed a brief respite from a difficult second half.

He will be followed, when the Bucs hit the road to Los Angeles, by Jonathan Sanchez on Friday and Jeff Locke on Sunday, both out to justify the Pirates' faith in them.

Manager Clint Hurdle wants them to do well. Hurdle is confident they will do well. But Hurdle does not place the Pirates' long-term fortunes on them doing well.

"These guys in the three-four-five spots all understand we've got other guys coming back," Hurdle said, with uncommon candor. "It's not a threat. It is what it is, and we have depth. So they know the importance of coming out and pitching clean and giving us chances to win games."

The pitchers constituting the depth of which Hurdle spoke all took recent steps on the comeback trail in Florida:

• Left-hander Francisco Liriano (fractured right arm) threw a 20-pitch batting practice on Tuesday, and will return to the mound Friday.

• Right-hander Charlie Morton (Tommy John surgery) threw a 35-pitch simulated game Wednesday.

• Only righty Jeff Karstens (shoulder inflammation) has yet to throw, limited to rehab exercises; he could play flat-ground catch by the weekend.

• Righty Jose Contreras (Tommy John surgery), a future consideration for the bullpen, pitched in extended Spring Training on Sunday.

The Pirates are hopeful Liriano will be ready to join up by mid-May, with Morton not too far behind. It is the reason neither was placed on the 60-day disabled list, which would have kept them unavailable until June 1.

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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