Spring training: Taschner, Chulk aim for pen

Relievers' reinvention leads to strong chance to crack Pirates' roster

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Spring is a season of renewal and, for some, reinvention.

Two of the most impressive relievers in the Pirates' camp, left-hander Jack Taschner and right-hander Vinnie Chulk, have followed a familiar script for those players stuck on baseball's often cruel fringe -- off the 40-man roster -- and trying to find a way through.

That usually begins with ...

"I had to look in the mirror," Taschner said. "I could either accept that I was going to be mediocre in the majors, or I was going to make myself better. Last year was the first time in my baseball career that I felt I really stalled out."

So, he did what many pitchers do once they come to grips with bumping their heads on the Class AAA ceiling: He changed pretty much everything. After posting a 4.91 ERA in 24 appearances with the Philadelphia Phillies that left his career ERA at 5.00, he returned to his college coach, Tom Lechner at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and the two worked together to lower his arm angle from over-the-top to three-quarters.


Game: : Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 1:05 p.m., Osceola County Stadium, Kissimmee, Fla. LHP Zach Duke vs. RHP Roy Oswalt. Other pitchers: Jeff Karstens, Jack Taschner, Javier Lopez, Anthony Claggett.

TV, radio: None.

Camp roster: 37 players, including 19 pitchers, four catchers, eight infielders, six outfielders.

Injuries: OF Ryan Church (finger), RHP Vinnie Chulk (biceps), RHP Joel Hanrahan (elbow), RHP Jose Ascanio (shoulder).

Of note: 10 days until the Los Angeles Dodgers at PNC Park.

It was a risk, even at age 31.

"I know that," Taschner said. "But, the way I saw it, I had no choice"

The result?

"There was better command right away. I wouldn't say the action on my pitches has changed or anything like that, but I've got command. That makes all the difference."

It has shown: Taschner is getting strikes with his full fastball-slider-changeup repertoire, and he has allowed one run in 8 1/3 innings. He has 12 strikeouts, four walks, and opponents are batting 6 for 30 against him.

Management has been impressed, and Taschner now looks like a strong candidate -- a near-lock -- to complement Javier Lopez in left-handed relief.

Chulk, 31, is not at the near-lock status after getting rocked for four runs, five hits and four walks in his past two outings, raising his ERA to 7.36. And it will not help his cause that he has missed the past five games to a tight right biceps, delaying his next appearance to Sunday.

But the dominant slider he showed early in camp, which contributed greatly to his total of 10 strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings, impressed management enough that he still as seen as the default final choice for the bullpen.

That slider came from a simple changing of the grip in December.

"It's a lot more sweeping," Chulk said. "I messed around with it, and I felt like I could throw it for strikes right away. Or, get ahead with the sinker, and give a shot to the slider in the dirt."

Chulk, like Taschner, has fared markedly better in the minors than the majors. His ERA in the latter is 4.33, and he has spent at least some of five of the past seven seasons in the minors. That includes a 2009 in which he made the Cleveland Indians' roster early but lasted only eight appearances before a demotion, then missed the final two months to a sprained ankle.

"I feel like I'm having a really good spring, and I'm just looking for the opportunity," Chulk said.

Locks for the bullpen, given Joel Hanrahan's likely placement on the 15-day disabled list to open the season, are closer Octavio Dotel, Brendan Donnelly, Evan Meek, Javier Lopez and D.J. Carrasco, the latter a non-roster invitee like Taschner and Chulk. With two more openings, Taschner and Chulk are next in line, with Jeff Karstens and Brian Bass remote possibilities.

The Pirates have no escape-clause issues -- a player to declare free agency if not added to the 25-man roster by a certain date -- expected to affect any of the bubble relievers.

Church has small fracture

Outfielder Ryan Church has a hairline fracture at the tip of his left middle finger, but he is expected to return Sunday.

The finger slammed back against the cement top of a dugout Saturday in Sarasota when he tried -- for no real reason -- to catch a teammate's foul ball.

"Never did that before in my life," Church said. "And I'll never do it again."

Church hit off a tee Thursday morning and pronounced the finger, which had no bandage or splint, "just fine."

Morton serves up two

Charlie Morton gave up home runs to two former Pirates, Nate McLouth and Eric Hinske, in the 7-6, 10-inning comeback victory against the Atlanta Braves Thursday at McKechnie Field.

McLouth, the player traded to Atlanta for Morton and two prospects, opened the game by lining an 0-1 pitch over the fence in left for his first home run after a dismal 2-for-38 start to his spring.

"I'll be fine," McLouth said. "I've felt a lot better the past few days."

Hinske lined a three-run shot over the fence in right as part of Atlanta's four-run fourth inning.

Morton was charged with five runs and eight hits in his five innings, raising his ERA to 5.30.

"I guess it was pitch selection, because I felt like, for the most part, I was throwing strikes with all my pitches except for my curveball," Morton said.

Steve Pearce hit his third home run in the seventh, then a two-run single in the Pirates' five-run eighth off another former player, Jesse Chavez. But the Pirates' regulars mustered only four hits in the first six innings, continuing a weeklong trend of little offense from the most important players.

John Raynor singled in the 10th, took third on a single by prospect Chase D'Arnaud, and scored the decisive run on a wild pitch.

Buried treasure

• The Pirates are not known to be getting much, if anything, in the way of trade offers for infielder Ramon Vazquez, and it appears the team will release him -- and his guaranteed $2 million contract -- before the season. If another team then signs Vazquez, the major league minimum wage of $400,000 will be subtracted from the amount the Pirates must pay Vazquez.

• Delwyn Young, tied for the Grapefruit League lead with six home runs, played the last three innings Thursday at third base, his first action there in an attempt to expand his options defensively. He also can play right field and second base.

• Like Pearce, Young had a two-run single in the eighth, raising his team-best RBI total to 18.

• The Los Angeles Dodgers announced right-hander Vicente Padilla will start the opener against the Pirates April 5 at PNC Park.

Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog .


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