Pirates notebook: Morton, Liriano eyeing early May return ­

Rob Biertempfel
| Thursday, April 18, 2013, 6:54 p.m.

Left-hander Francisco Liriano and righty Charlie Morton might be in the Pirates' starting rotation by May 8.

On Thursday, manager Clint Hurdle said Liriano (broken right arm) needs at least three more minor league rehab starts, and Morton (elbow surgery) needs four. Barring setbacks, Liriano might be ready to pitch for the Pirates on May 5, and Morton could rejoin the club a couple of days later.

“Our guys know the clock's ticking,” Hurdle said.

Liriano will pitch four innings/65 pitches Saturday for Double-A Altoona. On Thursday night, Morton (elbow surgery) pitched three innings for High-A Bradenton. Morton allowed two runs and three hits and struck out two.

Reliever Jose Contreras (elbow surgery) will pitch Saturday for Altoona, which will be at New Britain.

On Thursday afternoon, RHP Jeff Karstens (shoulder inflammation) threw a 30-pitch bullpen session at PNC Park. The Pirates have not indicated if there is a timetable for his return.

Maholm streaking

Someday this season, perhaps even Saturday night when he faces the Pirates, Braves left-hander Paul Maholm finally will give up a run.

Maholm (3-0) has tossed 20 13 consecutive scoreless innings, blanking the Phillies, Marlins and Nationals. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is only the fourth big leaguer in the expansion era (post-1961) to win his first three starts without allowing a run.

“I'm going to try to ride it out as long as possible,” Maholm said Thursday. “I know I'm going to give up a run. I just hope that when I do, they don't come in bunches.”

A first-round pick in 2003, Maholm went 53-73 with a 4.36 ERA and 1.42 WHIP in seven years with the Pirates. Over the past two seasons with the Braves and Cubs, Maholm is 16-11 with a 3.31 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP.

“Sure, I would've liked to have won more games when I was in Pittsburgh,” he said. “I guess it was a learning process. I'm executing pitches better, not missing and making mistakes, not falling behind. I've slowed the game down and understand hitters a little better. I'm taking everything I've learned, and I'm trying to take the game to another level.”

Saturday will mark Maholm's fourth start against the Pirates. He is 1-1 with a 2.25 ERA against his old team. Maholm will need to watch out for Clint Barmes, who's hit .441 with two homers and nine RBI in 34 career at-bats against him.

Nearly a no-no

Wednesday's game against the Cardinals was the fifth time A.J. Burnett took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. According to Elias, that's a feat matched by five other active pitchers: Derek Lowe (six), Mark Buehrle, Matt Cain, Ted Lilly and Justin Verlander (five apiece).

There were a couple of defensive gems that aided Burnett. He got his 2,000th career strikeout when he caught Carlos Beltran looking in the second inning. Right fielder Travis Snider made a nice catch of Yadier Molina's fly ball in the fifth. In the seventh inning, Burnett pounced on a Matt Holliday's slow roller — sliding to stop the ball, nearly fumbling the pickup, then firing a strong throw to first base.

“They made some good catches, even A.J. himself,” Beltran said. “He made a good play on that little dribbler Holliday hit.”

Beltran paused and grinned. “Normally, pitchers don't make those plays,” he said.

Moments after Holliday got back to the Cardinals' dugout, Beltran broke up the no-hit bid with a double to the gap in right-center field.

“It was a slider,” Beltran said. “That was one of the few that he threw around the middle of the strike zone. He threw me the first one for a strike. The second one was more hittable, so I put a good swing on it.”

A good, fast start

One thing Hurdle liked best about Burnett's start was the tone set in the three-up, three-down first inning. The Pirates have a 9.00 ERA in the first inning this year and a 6.21 ERA over the first three innings combined.

“(The first inning) has been a challenge this season,” Hurdle said. “It's one of the areas we have to improve, the responsibility and accountability that comes with starting, to set a tone. That first inning was electric. A.J. let them know he was there to play.”

Leroux gone

Right-hander Chris Leroux cleared waivers and opted for free agency. He was designated for assignment April 12 when Bryan Morris was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis.

Staff writer Karen Price contributed to this report. Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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