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Bucs' Hart is a frontrunner for rotation spot

BRADENTON, Fla. — John Russell's animated eyebrows might have given it away.

The Pirates manager broke out of his normally unaffected demeanor Friday when asked about right-hander Kevin Hart.

"He's throwing the ball really, really well," Russell said, arching his eyebrows and raising his voice. "So we're very excited."

Excited enough to award Hart the final open spot in the starting rotation• Perhaps.

The storyline coming into spring training camp was that Hart and Daniel McCutchen would compete for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Rising prospect Brad Lincoln would press them from Triple-A Indianapolis.

But yesterday, while talking in general about the pitching staff, Russell listed Hart as one of the starters and McCutchen among the bullpen crew. When asked if the job is Hart's to lose, Russell hedged.

"There's competition, and (Hart) knows it," Russell said. "He's going to show he's ready for it.

"We've got other very good candidates, but he's working awfully hard. Time will tell, but he's in a good position right now."

This is Hart's third time in a major-league camp — he was invited to the Cubs' camps the past two years — but his first opportunity as a full-time starting pitcher.

"It's a good experience for me," Hart said. "At the same time, all you can control is what you do and how hard you work. The rest of that stuff will take care of itself."

In June, the Cubs called up Hart from Triple-A as a reliever. Then, he was moved into the rotation and made four starts in July before being traded to the Pirates.

Hart made 10 mostly disastrous outings for the Pirates. He went 1-8 with a 6.92 ERA and ended the year riding a seven-game losing streak.

"I know it's hard for people to believe there were some positives in there," Hart said. "I learned a lot about myself and what I can and can't do on the mound.

"I'm not going to run from any challenge. Things went about as poorly as they could have gone last year in Pittsburgh. But I'm here, ready to go, and I'm anxious to get back out there."

This offseason, Hart tweaked his mechanics. He worked to slow down his delivery and "stay behind the ball" through his release point. When he does that, his pitches have more sink.

"He feels a lot more comfortable with (his mechanics)," Russell said. "He's really focusing."

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