At this point, the Pirates' starting rotation for the 2009 season is Paul Maholm and ... "a blank sheet," pitching coach Jeff Andrews said.
But Ian Snell's name likely will be written on that sheet.
The right-hander, who worked six three-hit innings in the Pirates' 5-1 loss to Houston last night, is among at least eight or nine candidates who theoretically will vie for the other four spots in spring training.
- Game: Houston Astros vs. Pirates, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV/Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Brian Moehler (11-7, 4.33) vs. RHP Jimmy Barthmaier (0-1, 27.00).
- Key matchup: Barthmaier vs. his earned run average. Good chance to whittle it down a bit. In his only other major league start (Tampa Bay, June 27), he allowed seven hits and seven runs in 2 1/3 innings.
- Of note: Nate McLouth lifetime against Moehler is 5 for 10 with three doubles.
"Maholm has done a lot by himself," Snell said. "A lot of us have to contribute. None of us contributed [this season] but Maholm."
"We've really got to make some adjustments with our pitching," manager John Russell said.
"Our pitching hasn't been very good. We need to do better. We have some things to work on. But I'm not saying it's going to be years and years. I think we've accomplished a lot this year."
Spring training, however, will be interesting as far as pitching goes.
"It's not going to be tryouts," Andrews said. "It's going to be auditions. Who's the best guy? Who's ready to go? Who's prepared? Who's executing? Who's getting guys out?"
And remember that general manager Neal Huntington has said there will be "no scholarships" next season.
"I don't know if they're walk-ons," Andrews said, chuckling.
"It's going to be interesting. We're going to live and die on these guys' self-motivation. That's what we're pinning it on."
While Snell allowed just three hits, he inflated his pitch count to 108 by walking five batters, including two who scored in the fourth inning.
With one out in the fourth, Snell walked Lance Berkman and Geoff Blum. Hunter Pence shot an 0-2 pitch into left for the Astros' first hit.
The Pirates likely had a play at home, but third baseman Andy LaRoche zipped the relay past the plate, enabling Blum to reach third and Pence to reach second. Blum scored on Ty Wigginton's bouncer to short.
The Astros, who had scored only five runs while losing their previous five games, matched that total after scoring three two-out runs off Denny Bautista in the eighth.
Adam LaRoche, who had half the Pirates' four hits, accounted for their run with his 23rd home run, a drive that struck the top of the center-field wall and landed in the bullpen in the fourth.
Nate McLouth continues to have a fighting chance at reaching 100 RBIs to go with his 110 runs scored.
The center fielder didn't seem to have a shot at 100 RBIs when he totaled only five in August, but he has 16 in September, including nine in his past eight games and 93 with eight remaining.
"It would be neat," McLouth said.
"Obviously, the difference between 100 and 99 is [only] one, but  looks different. And having led off a lot this season, it would be neat to get it."
NOTES -- It appears that if Jack Wilson (fractured right index finger) makes an appearance in the final home game of the season tomorrow, it won't be just a gratuitous cameo. "He's not going to want to do something just to do it," Russell said. "He'll want to contribute and help us win a game." The shortstop can't play in the field, but he can pinch-hit and pinch-run. ... Jimmy Barthmaier makes his second major league start tonight. In his first June 27 against Tampa Bay, he lasted just 21/3 innings, allowing seven runs. "That wasn't a very good look," Russell said. "He has a nice changeup that we'd like him to use more. We just want him to relax and let what he does best come through."
Paul Meyer can be reached at email@example.com . First Published September 20, 2008 4:00 AM