This spring, as the Pirates prepared for the when/if decision they would probably have to make about Matt Morris leaving their starting rotation, three candidates for the "sixth starter" job seemed obvious.
Right-hander John Van Benschoten, their first-round draft pick -- and the eighth overall selection -- in 2001; right-hander Bryan Bullington, their first-round pick -- the first overall choice -- in 2002; and left-hander Phil Dumatrait, who also was a first-round pick, having been taken 22nd overall by Boston in 2000.
Dumatrait was waived by Cincinnati in October after performing miserably in his first six major league starts.
Tellingly, the Pirates picked Dumatrait over Van Benschoten and Bullington.
- Game: Pirates vs. Chicago White Sox, 8:11 p.m., U.S. Cellular Field.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Ian Snell (3-6, 5.33) vs. RHP Javier Vazquez (6-5, 3.90).
- Key matchup: Jason Michaels, who likely will start in right field for Xavier Nady, is 5 for 15 with a home run lifetime against Vazquez.
- Of note: Snell in seven interleague starts is 2-4 with a 4.54 ERA. He started once against the White Sox, losing a 4-2 decision June 27, 2006.
"He was the one we had stretched out, that we had looked at," said pitching coach Jeff Andrews, who had watched Dumatrait pitch in the minor leagues for a few seasons. "Looking at his stuff, there was no reason he couldn't be a starter. You need to get guys stretched out, and he was an easy call for me."
"How the ball comes out of his hand and how easily he finishes his fastball," Andrews said. "That was probably the biggest thing."
Manager John Russell, then managing Class AAA Ottawa for Philadelphia, had seen Dumatrait pitch for Louisville last year.
"I really liked the way he threw," Russell said. "I liked his mound presence and everything about him. I was very excited that we picked him up."
The Pirates claimed Dumatrait off waivers Oct. 26, frustrating at least a few other teams that had him on their "acquire" lists.
One team's report on Dumatrait included the phrases "always aggressive" and "moves hitters' feet" and "there's some deception" in his delivery.
Another team that would have claimed Dumatrait if it had a chance, pegged him as "at worst a left-on-left guy" -- meaning he could be a specialist against left-handed batters. That team also figured Dumatrait could be a middle reliever.
The Pirates thought Dumatrait could be a middle reliever, but they also had their eyes on the day Dumatrait could move into the rotation.
That latter projection led Andrews to work with Dumatrait in spring training on improving his changeup -- a pitch another organization last year called "very inconsistent" and "a work in progress."
The emphasis began after Dumatrait made a start against Detroit in Lakeland in spring training. He was exceptional in his first two innings but faltered in the third and fourth.
"He just didn't have a way to get soft outs," Andrews said. "He didn't have any way to slow the bats down. We didn't see anything off-speed that he needed to get easy outs with."
Andrews changed Dumatrait's grip on his changeup, having him push the ball farther back in his hand.
"The changeup is just such a staple of left-handed pitchers," Andrews said. "His arm action was so true and simple [that] I thought it would be an easy pitch for him to get. He grabbed it easy -- maybe within a couple weeks."
Dumatrait, always a starter in the minor leagues, began this season in the bullpen. He performed capably as a reliever while Morris began losing his hold on a rotation spot. Finally, Morris ran out of chances. The Pirates released him April 27, and Dumatrait started in his stead May 2 against Washington.
INDIANAPOLIS (35-37) beat Columbus, 8-3. RHP Jason Davis (4-7, 4.76) allowed three runs, two earned, and eight hits in six innings. RHP Jesse Chavez (3.18) pitched two scoreless innings of relief. 3B Neil Walker (.229) hit his 10th home run, a two-run shot, and went 1 for 4. SS Brian Bixler (.266) hit his fourth home run, a two-run shot, and went 2 for 4 with a steal. PH Craig Wilson (.215) hit his eighth home run, a two-run shot, in his only at-bat. CF Andrew McCutchen (.284) went 2 for 4 with a double. RF Steve Pearce (.255) went 0 for 4.
ALTOONA (29-37) was off.
LYNCHBURG (29-41) was off.
HICKORY (30-40) was off.
STATE COLLEGE opens its New York-Penn League season tonight at Jamestown.
His results have been more than adequate -- certainly better than his six starts last year with Cincinnati, when Dumatrait pitched only 18 innings and allowed 39 hits and 30 runs. He was 0-4.
In nine starts for the Pirates, Dumatrait has pitched 49 2/3 innings and allowed 40 hits and 21 earned runs. He's 3-3.
Some difference from last season.
"I think he's a different guy," Russell said. "He wasn't throwing nearly as hard last year as he is now. He didn't have the changeup that he has now. I think he's added a better weapon with his changeup. I think he's stronger.
"People [who] saw him last year at the end of the year and see him now, they don't see the same guy -- not the same guy at all."
Scouts have confirmed that, and Dumatrait does, too.
"As far as being a different pitcher, I think the biggest thing is that changeup," he said. "I have another pitch, and I can go out there and don't have to throw [just] my fastball and slider. I can really rely on the changeup. It has definitely made a difference."
Like most inexperienced major league starters, Dumatrait has had his rough moments.
After performing well in his first three starts this season, he had a tough start May 18 in Chicago. In 4 2/3 innings against the Cubs, he allowed four hits and seven walks.
But he followed that with four consecutive positive starts in which he won twice and allowed 18 hits, 10 walks and 5 earned runs in 24 1/3 innings.
He labored through a bit of a downer Friday night in Baltimore, struggling with keeping his pitches down and yielding five hits, five walks and five runs in five innings and threw only 53 strikes with his 99 pitches.
Given a 6-1 lead by his teammates, he wound up with a no-decision in the first of the team's three topsy-turvy games against the Orioles.
"I just think I was rushing a little bit," Dumatrait said. "Just one of those nights. I didn't throw very many strikes."
He'll get a chance to regroup Thursday afternoon when he starts against the Chicago White Sox.
"I'm going to just try and go out there and pitch off my fastball and keep the ball down and not rush and, hopefully, put this last start behind me," he said. "And, you know, have another three, four or five good [starts] in a row."
If he can do that, he'll continue to make progress, and perhaps continue to cement a spot in next season's rotation.
That is what the Pirates would like to see, and what they thought back in spring training might occur.
"Coming into spring training, I think he was definitely on a mission," Russell said. "It's really shown."