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Spring training blooms with experimentation for Pirates pitchers

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher James McDonald talks with catcher Michael McKenry and pitching coach Ray Searage between innings against the Orioles on March 1, 2013, in Sarasota, Fla. McDonald, who was working only on his fast balls, gave up three home runs in the game.

Pirates/MLB Videos

Saturday, March 16, 2013, 11:37 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Spring training is a time for players to experiment, but it isn't always easy to set aside competition and settle for the sometimes undesirable results.

“Sometimes it'll take over, and you'll get a little mad,” pitcher James McDonald said. “When I'm up there and all my pitches aren't as sharp, you get a little frustrated, but you have to think, ‘I have to prepare for a job.' Regardless of the situation, I've got to get the feel of something on the mound and get in the groove. You have to be smart about it. But deep down inside, you're gritting your teeth sometimes.”

McDonald threw only two sliders in a recent four-inning outing against Baltimore while working on the feel of his lesser-used changeup. He still allowed just one hit.

In A.J. Burnett's first outing of the spring, he wasn't throwing any curveballs, then used the pitch on a limited basis in his second game. The right-hander walked in a pair of runs and was unhappy about his struggles to deliver first-pitch strikes in an outing of 1 13 innings that pushed his ERA to 13.50. After the game, Burnett said that even though he was where he needed to be at that point in spring, he still wanted to do well and get decent results.

And sometimes it isn't the pitches that cause problems.

The Pirates have been preaching the running game all spring, and catcher Russell Martin suspected that when Gerrit Cole fell behind Baltimore's Ryan Flaherty before dealing a home run pitch, it was because Cole was worried too much about Manny Machado, his first baserunner of the game, on first.

Pitching coach Ray Searage said that if he sees an alteration or believes a pitcher's stuff would be enhanced if he incorporated a new pitch in certain situations, spring is the time to test it. Still, encouraging players to work on a weaker pitch or try a new sequence sometimes requires a certain touch.

“They're trying to make an impression and trying to make the team,” Searage said. “Obviously the stuff we're working on with some guys is new, and we don't want to set them up for failure. We want them to succeed.”

Searage said he seldom tells a pitcher he can't throw his best pitch, unless it's someone whose roster spot isn't in question.

“Then I'll say, ‘Hey, let's get this going today and see what happens with it,' ” Searage said. “Usually what it all comes back to is that fastball with good location, down in the zone, in or out or whatever the case may be. That's usually everybody's go-to pitch.”

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

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