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Pirates notebook: Infield hit defines McCutchen's mindset

| Thursday, March 28, 2013, 7:09 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen is caught stealing against the Astros on Sunday, March 3, 2013, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.

TAMPA, Fla. — A play that got lost in the box score a few days ago speaks volumes about the way Andrew McCutchen plays the game.

Ninth inning, one out, Pirates losing by four runs in a meaningless spring training game. McCutchen hit a roller to the left side, and Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Yunel Escobar approached it as he would any routine ground ball.

Except it wasn't.

McCutchen bolted out of the batter's box, flew down the first-base line and beat Escobar's throw for an infield single.

In the Pirates' dugout, Russell Martin stood up and cheered. The handful of fans who stuck around on a chilly night whooped.

Manager Clint Hurdle wasn't surprised, though. He's seen it before from McCutchen, and it's what he's come to expect — and demand.

“When your best player is your hardest worker, it steps up everybody's game,” Hurdle said. “That's the way we've got to play. It's a mindset, as much as anything.”

Even the Rays took note of McCutchen's hustle.

“I can't be more impressed,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “I know how good he is with everything else that he does, but for that organization to have their best player do something like that is extremely impressive. I already was a big admirer, but even more so right now.”

After McCutchen's breakout season last year, the rest of the country could soon discover what makes McCutchen tick. Former big league manager Larry Bowa, now an analyst for The MLB Network, said McCutchen never fails to go all-out.

“There's a mental toughness about him that I like,” Bowa said.

“He's shown the ability to concentrate in tough times, like in September when the team is out of it. This kid doesn't give away at-bats. If they could surround him with a couple more players, I think it would be an exciting team to watch.”

Locke shines in finale

Jeff Locke, who threw six scoreless innings against the Yankees, has pitched in the majors in each of the past two seasons, but this will be his first Opening Day in the big leagues.

“It's super exciting,” Locke said. “Just talking to the veterans, they tell me Opening Day doesn't get old. It's never the same and it's always exciting. I can only speak about Triple-A opening days, but, I'll tell you, I was so excited for that, so I can only imagine what this will be like.”

Grilli gets a start

James McDonald will start the exhibition game Saturday in Altoona. Closer Jason Grilli will switch teams — and roles — for the day and start for the Double-A Curve. “I need another jersey to add to my collection,” Grilli joked.

Planet of the aches

Although he'll likely be placed on the disabled list Sunday, Brandon Inge (shoulder) will be in Pittsburgh for the season opener. ... Jeff Karstens (shoulder) will remain in Florida, shut down and waiting for the inflammation to subside. General manager Neal Huntington said Karstens has not had an MRI exam, but didn't rule out that course of action in the coming days.

Yesterday's gone

Don't bother asking A.J. Burnett if the Pirates can avoid the kind second-half meltdown they endured last season.

“Sorry, I'm not going to answer any more ‘last year' questions,” Burnett said.

He's not the only one. When the team broke camp Thursday and flew north, it left behind all its memories — and discussion — of last year's flop.

“We had one last talk about last year and we're done. It's this year,” Hurdle said.

“We've put in six weeks of work. Do we still have room for improvement? Absolutely. But we're all focused forward.”

Walker ramps it up

Neil Walker said it takes him a bit longer than most players to get ready each spring because he's a switch hitter.

“I've got to pace myself and find ways to fine-tune slowly,” Walker said. “If you do too much during spring training, it can be counter-productive. August and September are still six months away. You have to listen to your body and take it easy with the pace.”

The herniated disc that sidelined Walker at the end of last season was not an issue in camp. He played sparingly over the first two weeks of Grapefruit League games. Since then, he's been in the lineup for 13 of 17 games.

“There's been no health issues for Neil, whatsoever,” Hurdle said. “No setbacks. There's nothing he hasn't been able to do on the field.”

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

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