Pirates right-hander battling back from Tommy John surgery

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BRADENTON, Fla. — The race for a roster spot waits for no player. So, last spring, when Kyle McPherson felt some pops in his elbow that he thought meant he hyperextended it, he kept throwing.

The pops continued, the velocity dropped, and McPherson eventually needed Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery on his right elbow in the middle of the summer. In about two weeks, he said, he’ll resume throwing off a mound, one step closer to the orbit of the major league roster he inhabited last spring.

McPherson, 26, was the Pirates’ minor league pitcher of the year in 2011. He missed part of 2012 because of a shoulder injury, but struck out 63 batters in 67 innings with a 3.22 ERA that year between Class AA Altoona and Class AAA Indianapolis. He made his major league debut in relief that August and started three games for the Pirates down the stretch.

Spring Training Report: Hurdle names Liriano Opening Day starter

Pittsburgh Pirates Pirates manager Clint Hurdle naming Francisco Liriano the Opening Day starter from spring training camp in Bradenton, Fla. (Video by Peter Diana; 2/18/2014)

Last spring, he competed for the final spot in the rotation but started the season in Indianapolis.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t break with the team,” he said. “I started off the season, and it went downhill rapidly after that. The velocity fell off the table, and I felt a couple more pops.”

McPherson made two poor starts for Indianapolis in April before attempting to rehab his arm in Bradenton. When he returned to the mound, he felt a final pop, and he knew at that point he needed help.

Dr. James Andrews performed the surgery July 10.

“Waking up from the anaesthesia and knowing that you’re elbow’s in a cast, you’re just kind of like, a little bit let down,” McPherson said. “But, at the same time, it was the most serious condition that I have yet faced. For me to get back to the top and be competitive again, this was the necessary means that I had to go through.”

McPherson is throwing off flat ground now at distances of up to 120 feet. He said he needed to focus on his mechanics and arm slot more with his rebuilt elbow but has regained the feel for it. The initial sensation, though, was strange.

“You just feel some stiffness and stuff when you first get the baseball back in your hand,” he said. “It literally feels like you’ve never picked a ball up before.”

McPherson said he has not heard from pitching coach Ray Searage or special assistant to the general manager Jim Benedict, a pitching specialist, regarding any imbalance or kink in his delivery that might have caused the injury. They have told him to put himself in peak condition.

“All in all, I’m progressing very well right now and just looking forward to staying on that track,” he said.

Liriano will start opener

Francisco Liriano will start opening day for the Pirates, manager Clint Hurdle announced Tuesday, a nod to Liriano’s outstanding performance in 2013 after an injury in the winter derailed the first month of his season.

The left-handed Liriano went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA in 161 innings in 2013. Hurdle informed the team Tuesday morning at the start of the first full-squad workout that Liriano would start.

“He’s a man you can depend on,” Hurdle said. “Many times I’ve shared with these players the greatest ability you can have, day in and day out, is your dependability.”

Liriano did not make his Pirates debut last year until May 11after fracturing the humerus in his right arm the previous Christmas Day when he slammed his hand into a door trying to scare his children.

“At this time last year, he was rehabbing,” Hurdle said. “He wasn’t even in the picture.”

Grilli right on new schedule

Jason Grilli threw 15 pitches off a mound Tuesday, Hurdle said. It was the first time Grilli had thrown off a mound since Thursday.

“All the offseason work he did, he worked incredibly hard,” Hurdle said. “Last year, the [World] Baseball Classic was a great experience for him, but it challenged him physically in a couple different ways. We have a plan in place for him get involved at a particular time and then add to that as we move forward so he will get, obviously, more than the six appearances that he got last year in spring training.”

Grilli pitched one inning for Italy in the WBC last year.

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.

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