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Pirates lefty relievers walking fine line

| Friday, March 15, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Kris Johnson delivers during a game against the Twins on Feb. 26, 2013, in Fort Myers, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Mike Zagurski delivers during a game against the Tigers on March 2, 2013, in Lakeland, Fla.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Pirates pitchers have issued more walks than any other staff this spring. Although a high walk total is never acceptable, it can be understandable when it happens early in training camp. That's a time for mechanical tweaks and experimentation.

It's not early in camp anymore.

“We need to tighten up,” pitching coach Ray Searage said Thursday. “Guys are not working on anything. This is the time to get focused and get ahead of hitters. This is it — right now.”

Through their first 18 Grapefruit League games, the Pirates gave up 78 walks. A quarter of those free passes were issued by four left-handers who are vying for bullpen jobs: Jonathan Sanchez (eight walks in 5 13 innings pitched), Justin Wilson (six in 7 innings), Andy Oliver (five in 2 13 innings) and Kris Johnson (two in 4 23 innings).

Two lefties — Tony Watson and Mike Zagurski — are yet to walk a batter. Watson, however, has worked only 1 23 innings so far. He is battling mechanical and physical issues and hasn't pitched in a game since Feb. 28.

If healthy, Watson is guaranteed a spot as the top left-hander in the bullpen. Management would prefer to break camp with one, or perhaps even two, more southpaw relievers.

Walks are bad news for any pitcher, but they can be especially damaging for a reliever. That's why Zagurski, who has worked ahead of batters all spring, might be putting himself in position to make the team.

Zagurski gave up Pete Orr's game-winning solo homer in a 2-1 loss against the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday. It was the first hit Zagurski has allowed in five innings this spring.

Zagurski, 30, has pitched parts of four seasons in the majors. Last year, with the Diamondbacks, he was one of 15 pitchers who made at least 45 outings without taking a loss. Zagurski did not allow a run in 29 of those games and had a career-best 1.50 WHIP.

How did he end up in camp as a non-roster invitee? His 6-foot, 240-pound frame doesn't fit the classic mold. His strikeout rate has slipped over the past two seasons, from 14.1 whiffs per nine innings in 2010 to 8.2 last year. And he always has struggled to find a consistent release point.

Zagurski said his strong run this spring came from two small adjustments suggested by Searage and special assistant to the GM Jim Benedict.

“I was flying open a bit and not getting the ball across where I wanted it to,” Zagurski said. “Just little minor things — stuff I probably should've recognized 10 years ago, but I didn't. It's been a good change.”

Johnson, 28, had a breakthrough of a different sort playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. He pitched a total of 50 13 innings and gave up four earned runs (0.91 ERA). He allowed 37 hits, struck out 50 and walked 13.

“I have no idea (what happened),” Johnson said. “I feel the same. Something just clicked. I can't explain it.”

Johnson was rated the Boston Red Sox's fourth-best pitcher prospect in 2008. But he went a combined 9-26 as a starter in 2009 and 2010 and was released in May 2011.

He signed last year with the Pirates, who converted him to a reliever at Double-A Altoona. Johnson ended the season at Triple-A Indianapolis, where he had a 1.31 WHIP and 3.5 walks-per-nine-innings rate.

It didn't take Johnson long to learn avoiding walks is a key to success in his new role.

“They want you to go after hitters, throw strikes and get out of innings quick so you can (pitch) the next day,” Johnson said. “The more walks you have, the more pitches you're going to throw, the more time you're going to need off.”

And the secret to avoiding walks? Johnson smiled.

“Throw strikes,” he said. “That's about as simple as I can get.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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