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Pirates' youth taking shape

WASHINGTON — A little more than a year ago, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen were all biding their time in the minors.

On Wednesday, when Tabata was called up from Triple-A Indianapolis to make his debut against the Washington Nationals, the trio formed the top part of the Pirates' batting order. It's a combination manager John Russell hopes to be able to use for years to come.

"These guys are pretty young, and we're going to have them for a long time," Russell said. "We're happy these guys are here. It means we're definitely headed in the right direction. It's exciting."

Tabata, 21, started in left field and batted leadoff. McCutchen, 23, who'd been atop the order the previous nine games, hit third. Walker, 24, who has six multi-hit games in 12 starts, stayed in the No. 2 spot.

"Jose belongs at the top of the order because he can run, he can do some things with the bat, he uses the whole field," Russell said. "It's not out of the question that Andrew might bat leadoff again, and Jose might bat second, because that's a good combination. But with Neil swinging the bat pretty well, Andrew is a guy who can fill that (third) spot very well now."

It shouldn't be too much longer before the Pirates have a power-hitting option to fill the No. 3 hole — Pedro Alvarez. The Pirates' top draft pick in 2008 is the last of their "Big Three" prospects still in the minors.

Yesterday afternoon, Alvarez, 23, came up a single shy of hitting for the cycle in Indy's 5-3 victory over Pawtucket. He is batting .286 with 12 homers, and has collected 50 RBI in 60 games.

"You can't forget about him," Russell said. "We know he's there. He's really developing. We're not going to pick a (callup) date. We want to make sure he's ready to come up. Pedro is getting close."

Two months shy of his 22nd birthday, Tabata reached the majors maybe a bit sooner than he expected. Indy manager Frank Kremblas called Tabata into his office Tuesday.

"He played with me a little bit," Tabata said. "He said, 'If you don't play good, this is what happens. Open that (envelope).' I said, Why• What's happened to me?

"When I opened it, I saw the (plane ticket to Washington) and I said, 'Wow.' My first thought was of my Mom. I've talked to her every day, and she's told me, 'C'mon, baby, you can do it.' I cried a little bit."

Tabata hit .322 in 48 games as Indy's leadoff hitter. In 172 games since the Pirates acquired him in a July '08 trade, Tabata has hit .308.

In his first at-bat last night, Tabata — who dropped 8 pounds over the winter to gain some zip on the basepaths — reached on an infield single.

"It's a big leap, but it's the same (game), just a little bit faster," Tabata said. "I'll try to do the same things I did at Indianapolis."

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