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Sports

Bucs prep for Reds after dropping exhibition finale

| Monday, April 2, 2001

PITTSBURGH - PNC Park did not prove to be 'Home Sweet Home' for Pittsburgh as the Pirates dropped back-to-back games against the New York Mets over the weekend.

But those two contests didn't count in the standings. Tuesday in Cincinnati Pittsburgh will do it for real. And the Pirates can't wait.

'We've had enough of exhibition games,' Pittsburgh manager Lloyd McClendon said. 'I know the guys in the locker room are ready to start and so is this (coaching) staff. It's been a long, hard spring training and we're ready to go.'

And go they will. The Pirates will play their first six games on the road with two three-game series, at Cincinnati and Houston, respectively, before returning for the official opening of PNC Park April 9 at 1:35 p.m.

But having a taste of their new digs, albeit a small nibble, was enough to whet the Bucs appetite until their return. Now it's time to get back to business, and AstroTurf, at Cinergy Field.

McClendon will send Todd Ritchie (9-8, 4.81 earned run average in 2000) to the mound in the opener against Cincinnati. The one advantage that the 29-year-old right-hander should have is that Reds slugger Ken Griffey Jr. may not be in the lineup because of a sever hamstring injury, but it will also be the first time that the spotlight has been on him as an Opening Day starter.

'It's just another game,' Ritchie said. 'It's just the first game. There's nothing to feel added pressure for myself. I'm honored, we've had a few injuries, and I'm honored to have the first start.'

Ritchie has been a notoriously slow starter throughout his career. Last season with the Pirates he went 1-1 with a 2.62 ERA in five starts. Lifetime Ritchie is 3-4 with a 2.65 ERA in 18 appearances.

'Todd just needs to go out and be Todd and I think he'll do that,' McClendon said. 'He's ready, he's a veteran and he's poised to go out and do the job.'

Ritchie may have veteran savvy to rely upon when he takes the hill against the Reds, but he may have to transmit some of that steely calm to his shortstop before the game. That is where Jack Wilson, acquired from St. Louis for Jason Christiansen July 31, will make the first major-league start of his young career.

'It's exciting,' Wilson said. 'I'm glad I got to come here and play here for a couple days to get myself ready for all the people (in the stands) and stuff. I think I'm ready to go and it will be a lot of fun.'

Wilson has made the jump from the Double-A Altoona Curve to the Pirates, but how successful that leap will be remains to be seen.

'I'm here to do pretty much one think and that's play defense,' Wilson said. 'Offensively, I've hit well in the minor leagues, but that really doesn't matter here so we'll see how that goes.'

The biggest challenge that Wilson will probably face at the plate will be the movement on pitches at this level. How he adapts to a fastball cutting in toward his hands or a curveball dropping off the table will go a long way in determining his future in the Pittsburgh lineup.

'A lot of guys are around the plate and with me batting low in the order with the pitcher hitting behind me I'm going to see a whole lot of pitches,' Wilson said. 'I think the more you see it, the easier it is for you to recognize a lot of pitches.'

The problem that the Pirates will have from the start of the season is recognizing their pitchers. Kris Benson and Francisco Cordova made the trip north with the team while Jason Schmidt is still recuperating from off-season shoulder surgery. But so far that hasn't deterred the enthusiasm among the players.

'The morale in that clubhouse is as high as I've seen it,' McClendon said. 'Our guys are poised and ready to go. Nothing is fazing them.'

It will also be intriguing to see how McClendon fares in his first game as the manager, especially considering the fact that he will be doing so against the team that he cut his teeth with in 1987, his rookie season in the majors.

'I'm actually looking forward to it,' McClendon said. 'It will be special.'

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