Pirates minicamp: Moss has his moment

Outfielder takes big hacks in first hitting since knee surgery

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- All yesterday morning, the bat never left Brandon Moss' hands.

From the Pirates' clubhouse to the dining hall to the weight room and, finally, outside to the batting cage, he gripped that lumber as tightly as he had clung all winter to the belief that his surgically repaired left knee would not cost him his career.

"Can you tell he's excited?" manager John Russell asked, grinning.

"Gosh, I really am," Moss said.

Shortly after noon, that excitement would translate into the clear highlight of the Pirates' second day of minicamp: Moss took his first swings at live pitching of any kind -- "Even soft flips," he pointed out -- since the Oct. 3 surgery, and he did so with fine form and even better results.

The first round produced little.

"Some quality popups," he complained after that turn.

But the next saw one pitch -- from third base coach Tony Beasley -- launched off the tall batter's eye in center field, another clank off an SUV parked beyond the right-field fence, and the next clear that SUV by another car length.

Hitting coach Don Long was the first to offer congratulations, but others followed from the many team officials, including Russell and general manager Neal Huntington, who had watched quietly, seemingly as anxious as Moss to see how it went.

No surprise there: Moss, if healthy, will be the Pirates' everyday right fielder, and they are in dire need of the power he might be able to supply.

"It was good to see," Russell said. "We've felt good about his recovery all along, but it helps to have the results, especially for him to experience that."

"Honestly, this felt great," Moss said. "I just wanted to hit the ball hard and see how everything felt."

Not the knee, he stressed.

"No, that's fine," he said. "I will be ready to take the field on April 6."

That would be opening day in St. Louis, a target that looked barely feasible not that long ago.

Moss learned in late September that his knee was lacking cartilage and, thus, allowing bone-on-bone friction. A similar condition caused former Pirates first baseman Kevin Young to retire from baseball at age 34. The only encouraging word at the time was that medical procedures had advanced this decade, largely in the form of a procedure called microfracture in which tiny holes are drilled into the knee to allow the cartilage space to regenerate.

So, when Moss flew to Vail, Colo., to see Dr. Richard Steadman, one of the nation's premier knee specialists, he did so expecting to have the microfracture and, as a result, to miss four to six months of activity. At the least, the start of his 2009 season was in doubt. At the worst ...

"All I know is that knew I had a serious situation ahead of me," Moss recalled. "Not given the right care or attention, it could affect my whole career, not just one season. I knew I needed to get the right people to look at it, and I'm really glad now I did."

As Steadman scoped the knee, he determined two things:

1. Enough cartilage was in place that the microfracture was not necessary. He instead cleaned out some loose cartilage to allow the healthy cartilage room to regenerate.

2. Moss has a slight bow in the left leg that causes the bones to rub unusually. That cannot be addressed, but neither is it damaging so long as he feels no pain, which he is adamant he does not.

Bottom line: Moss' only visible limitation is that he occasionally wears a light brace.

"No pain," he said. "Nothing."

The Pirates still have a cautious plan for Moss in spring training, according to Russell: He will be limited in his running -- as he is now -- for the early going, then gradually worked into exhibitions.

"We want to protect him," Russell said.

Moss' focus in the interim, from the sound of it, will be less on the knee and more on improving those numbers he put up -- .222 average, six home runs, 23 RBIs in 45 games -- upon arriving in the Jason Bay trade last summer.

"I try not to even think about those last two months," he said. "I was lost. I didn't feel good at the plate. I never really got into a groove. I don't know what to attribute that to, but I just know I can do better. And I will. I feel like I have a whole new chance to prove myself."

NOTES -- All six of the Pirates' eligible players -- first baseman Adam LaRoche, center fielder Nate McLouth and pitchers Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, John Grabow and Tyler Yates -- filed for salary arbitration by Major League Baseball's deadline yesterday. The deadline to exchange salary figures is Tuesday. ... Third baseman Andy LaRoche participated after missing the first day of minicamp because of strep throat. He looked no less impressive than Moss at the plate, and he credited Long for a mechanical adjustment in straightening his back leg and keeping his head still. "I feel a lot stronger like that," LaRoche said.... Eight more pitchers threw off mounds, including Matt Capps, Duke and Grabow. All 17 healthy pitchers in minicamp have thrown now. ...Injured pitcher Phil Dumatrait, set back by his shoulder last week, is scheduled to resume throwing Monday. ... The Pirates' pitchers and catchers are required to report for spring training Feb. 13, with the first workout the following day.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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