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Pirates notebook: LaRoche remembers quest for .500

Rob Biertempfel
| Sunday, May 5, 2013, 5:27 p.m.
The Nationals' Tyler Moore is greeted by Adam LaRoche after his three-run home run in front of Pirates catcher Michael McKenry during the eighth inning Sunday, May 5, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Nationals' Tyler Moore is greeted by Adam LaRoche after his three-run home run in front of Pirates catcher Michael McKenry during the eighth inning Sunday, May 5, 2013, at PNC Park.

After flirting with first place in the NL Central the past two seasons, the Pirates are expected to make a run at a playoff berth this season. Adam LaRoche, who played in Pittsburgh from 2007-09, recalls when the goal was more modest.

“There were expectations, but it was .500,” said LaRoche, the Washington Nationals' first baseman. “People just wanted to get to .500.”

The Pirates have finished with losing records the past 20 seasons, a record for a North American pro sports franchise.

“I've never talked to a player who leaves the season excited because they were at .500,” LaRoche said. “It's way more exciting for the city, the fans, the media or whatever because it's a step.”

Some pundits have tabbed the Nationals as the favorite to win the World Series. That's quite a leap forward for a club that had a losing record as recently as 2011.

“Last year it was talked about a little bit, but nobody really cared about .500,” LaRoche said. “We wanted to be playing when the regular season is over, and that's it. Fast forward to this year, and now we're expected to do it. The scary thing is, if you sit back and expect it to happen because it did last year, that's when you look up and you're not in position to do it.”

The Nats have not looked like a juggernaut so far, but LaRoche isn't worried.

“What we need to get back is that confidence that nobody can beat us,” LaRoche said.

A few hundred feet down the hallway at PNC Park, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is trying to keep his players focused on what lies beyond .500.

“We feel there's more for us this year,” Hurdle said. “You need to make sure everybody's ears are in tune to what's going on in the clubhouse. The external stuff, more or less, is just noise.”

LaRoche credited manager Davey Johnson, who spent 13 years as a player and 17 as a big league manager, for keeping the Nationals from panicking. Hurdle feels he has the same responsibility with his club.

“When I was a player and things weren't going well, I looked to the manager to see what kind of behavior he modeled,” Hurdle said. “If he was holding fast ... I felt comfort in that. I felt confidence in that. I've played on some teams when that wasn't the case.”

Morton OK

Good news for right-hander Charlie Morton: doctors diagnosed him with tightness in the back of his right shoulder.

“Nothing more serious than that,” Hurdle said. “So, we're going to slow him down, have him play some flat-ground catch. Hopefully, later in the week, he'll throw a bullpen session. Following that, we hope to resume his rehab (from elbow surgery).”

Morton will travel with the team to New York, where he will throw the side session. If Morton's rehab is paused for at least seven days, the Pirates could extend it beyond the original 30-day limit.

“Hopefully, we won't need (to do) that for Charlie,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “Depending upon how quickly we're able to get the tightness out, he shouldn't miss that much time. He shouldn't have to go back to two (innings) and 35 (pitches) again.”

Bullpen management

It's only early May, but Hurdle already is worried that overworking his bullpen, especially the back-end guys, will have repercussions later this summer. Hurdle bristled when asked why he didn't use closer Jason Grilli in the ninth inning Saturday, when the Nationals scored one run to take a 5-4 win.

“Because of his age, we're not going to use Grilli in that situation,” Hurdle said. “Grilli is not going to pitch in certain situations when the game is tied at home in the ninth inning, just because of the usage. (Mark) Melancon is only going to pitch when we're ahead in the eighth inning.”

Grill, 36, has pitched in 14 games (13 innings) this season. Melancon, 28, has pitched in 16 games (16 innings).

On Sunday morning, Hurdle tried to reword his comments from the night before.

“Could it change? Yeah, depending on usage, it definitely could change,” Hurdle said. “I'm not going to draw anything up on paper and hand it to you so you can follow it throughout the season. Everybody would like a handbook to follow. It's a touch-and-feel type thing.”

Veteran Jose Contreras made his first appearance for the Pirates on Sunday, pitching one inning. He struck out two.

Injury report

Left-hander Francisco Liriano (broken right arm) made his final rehab start Sunday for Triple-A Indianapolis. He went five innings — 98 pitches (68 strikes) — and allowed four runs and seven hits. He struck out six. Liriano will come off the disabled list and start Saturday against the New York Mets at Citi Field. ... Right-hander Jeff Karstens (shoulder inflammation) will go to Florida on Monday to begin his rehab. He'll start in extended spring then join High-A Bradenton. ... Infielder Chase d'Arnaud (thumb) has resumed baseball-related activities and will begin a rehab program later this month.

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

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