Pitchers to work on fitness

PIRATES

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For a while, Brad Lincoln's offseason docket will feature tasks such as bow-hunting for whitetail deer near his home in Houston. Come November, his to-do list grows longer.

"We really don't call it an offseason," Lincoln said. "We call it a relax-for-two-weeks season."

Lincoln joined a starting rotation that lugged the Pirates into first place with its first-half success but tumbled in the second half. The fact that several of the starters surpassed their previous highs for innings pitched contributed, at least partially, to the decline in effectiveness. This offseason, they embark on the journey toward improving their fitness for next year.

"After the workload I had this year I'm probably going to have to leave the gym more exhausted than I have before," said Jeff Karstens, whose 1621/3 innings this season were almost 40 more than his previous major league high. "I think that's going to be the key to me being focused to get through next year."

Ironically, the two starters without innings concerns, Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm, ended the season on the disabled list. The rest will begin preparation for a full 2012 season. But not quite yet.

"October is just a relax month," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "They get rejuvenated and fill up the gas tank and stuff."

Once they get going, Searage said, a combination of strength training and a throwing program will aid their efforts to stay healthy and strong.

"You got to have the body, the body's got to be strong, but you also really have to work your arm," Searage said. "You have to really work on a lot of specific areas on the body, the core, for pitchers, upper body strength, shoulder and elbow. They've got to make sure that they do that long toss in order to build the strength in the arm and build up endurance."

While Lincoln hunts, Jeff Locke will hit the weight room to bulk up and James McDonald will play video games with his younger brother. Last season, the Pirates started their long-toss program a month earlier than usual, shortly after Thanksgiving. They will follow a similar schedule this season.

"If they get up to 90 feet in December, or 100 feet in December, then January they're at 120 to 150," Searage said. "This way we got the long toss out of the way and it gives them a lot more time for that arm to get elongated and get the strength from tendon to tendon."

Karstens replaced the injured Ross Ohlendorf in the rotation and had one of the best months in the National League in June, when he went 3-0 with a 1.52 ERA and walked seven batters in 411/3 innings. That success continued into July, but he had a 6.56 ERA in August and September and missed starts because of shoulder tightness.

"I know it's a little bigger workload than I had ever in my career in the big leagues," Karstens said. "It's just one of those things where I'm going to really be diligent about my work and see where it takes me."

McDonald said strengthening his legs is the most important part of his offseason conditioning.

"I think for me the main thing is running," he said. "I build strength with leg workouts, whether it be a circuit workout one day or straight power lift one day.

That way, "If it is the sixth or seventh inning, you won't be tired."

McDonald pitched 171 innings this season, also the most in his major league career, and threw 2,899 pitches, 1,690 more than last season.

Locke will return home to New Hampshire in the offseason and hit the weights to add muscle to his frame. The Granite State's winter climate does not lend itself to playing baseball outdoors, so Locke said he will head for Florida after the holidays to prepare for spring training.

"I will enjoy my rest," he said. "I'll only take a couple of weeks off."

Locke only made four starts with the Pirates this season but pitched 1531/3 innings in the minors as well.

"Most importantly [the organization's] focus and mine as a player is health concerns," he said. "I've been fortunate enough to be healthy throughout my minor league career."

Manager Clint Hurdle spoke often of the positive long-term effect that surpassing these innings limits would have on the rotation, and even with the injuries and skipped starts the Pirates were one of five teams to have five players start 25 or more games this season. They haven't done that since 1997.

Speaking of 1997, that was also the season the Pirates finished in second in the division with a 79-83 record. No telling whether the pitching staff will get the Pirates that close in 2012, but with the workouts they're planning this offseason, the rotation will do its best to find out.


Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com .


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