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Crowded field for fight to secure Pirates' bullpen spots

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Chris Leroux delivers against the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, in Port Charlotte, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Bryan Morris throws live batting practice Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2013, during spring training at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jonathan Sanchez holds the ball on the mound with runners on the corners during a game against the Red Sox on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2013, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Mike Zagurski has been with teams on which innings are scarce for pitchers competing for spots in spring training.

That hasn't been the case with the Pirates, and Zagurski has used the opportunities to his advantage.

The 30-year-old left-hander, whom the Pirates signed as a minor league free agent and is in camp as a nonroster invitee, hasn't allowed a hit let alone a run and has struck out seven in four innings (four games) in his bid to make the team out of the bullpen.

“I think no matter where you're at, there's always limited opportunities,” Zagurski said. “The trick is making the most of them. I'm fortunate that they've given me a lot of opportunities so far. I've pitched fairly frequently and consistently, which probably makes things easier than pitching once and waiting 10 days. The opportunity's been there, and I've done fairly well so far.”

Zagurski is one of a number of pitchers competing for three open spots in the bullpen.

The only locks coming into spring were closer Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes and lefty Tony Watson.

Manager Clint Hurdle has made no secret in the past of his preference to have two left-handers in the bullpen. The Pirates also have been looking at Kris Johnson, a 28-year-old nonroster invitee who pitched in Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis last season. He took the loss in his first appearance but has allowed just one hit, struck out five and walked two in 3 23 scoreless innings since that initial outing.

Also in the mix are Justin Wilson, who spent most of last season in Indianapolis, and Jonathan Sanchez, whom they acquired as a minor league free agent in February and also could be a candidate for the rotation.

Right-handers Chris Leroux, Bryan Morris and Jeanmar Gomez are out of options. Gomez was a member of Cleveland's Opening Day roster last season but has given up 12 runs (nine earned) on 10 hits, walked five and struck out three for a 13.50 ERA in six innings. Leroux was scheduled to return to Bradenton on Monday night after starting with Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, and Morris has given up one run and one hit in 4 13 innings.

No matter how the bullpen shakes out, the makeup could change once the Pirates get back injured starters Charlie Morton and Francisco Liriano.

That could push projected starter Jeff Karstens into the bullpen in a long-relief role, for which the Pirates also are considering Phil Irwin.

The Pirates met after Monday's game to decide on their first cuts of camp, which should be announced Wednesday. The team had Tuesday off.

“Some guys we were anticipating would be able to take some steps forward and help us, ideally one from the left side,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “We've got some work to do with guys from the left side. We've got some work to do with guys from the right side. We've got to be consistently in the zone and work a little bit quicker. We're controlling the running game better than we have in the past, but we still have some guys who are absolutely competing for those three spots.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at kprice@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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