BRADENTON, Fla. -- Last year's Spring Training was rather odd for the Pirates, in that every other opposing starter they faced was left-handed. The concentration of southpaws was the ideal launching pad for switch-hitter Neil Walker, who is naturally right-handed, but normally gets far more swings left-handed, making it his more powerful side.
The collection of opposing starters has been strikingly different this spring, so much so that Walker was scratched from a couple of recent Grapefruit League games so he could get extra right-handed swings in Minor League games.
"I really need those right-handed reps," said Walker, who had only 11 at-bats all spring against lefties until he faced the Orioles' Brian Matusz in Sunday's 12-10 loss.
Walker went 1-for-2 against Matusz with an infield single, leaving him 2-for-13 against left-handers this spring with a .313 on-base percentage.
Because his dominant right hand is on the bottom when he bats left-handed, Walker has always shown far more power from that side. None of his 14 homers last season came hitting right-handed, and he homered once in 160 at-bats from that side the year before.
But he is a more patient hitter right-handed with a better eye for the strike zone and more contact. Those skills rely on reps to maintain, and Walker has occasionally detoured to the Minor League camp to find them.
Martin loses opportunity for at-bats after ejection
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Russell Martin still needs to get his bat working in regular-season mode. His fire, however, is already in midseason form.
That should help explain how the Pirates catcher managed the near impossible Sunday: Not only getting ejected from a Spring Training game, but getting the thumb in the top of the first inning.
Home-plate umpire Chad Fairchild tossed Martin after the catcher began arguing balls and strikes, standing up for starter Chris Leroux, who was in the midst of a nightmarish eight-run inning and getting little help from his defense or Fairchild's strike zone.
"I'm obviously not going to get in the umpire's face," Leroux said, "so I'm glad [Martin] noticed the same things I did. He had my back. Those balls did seem like strikes to me, and there's a big difference between 1-0 and 0-1 [counts]."
"I don't expect anybody to be perfect, but I feel like when you try to communicate, there needs to be some rapport," Martin said of Fairchild. "I felt like it wasn't there today. I know he's a good guy. In the heat of the moment, I probably let my emotions get the best of me and I'm sure he did, too.
"People may go, 'How can you get thrown out of a Spring Training game?' But I treat it like a regular-season game. I love being out there competing."
It is one of the things the Pirates love about Martin, who signed a two-year, $17 million deal with Pittsburgh as a free agent.
"We got him for a number of reasons," manager Clint Hurdle said, "and one of them is his passion, his energy behind the plate, and that was evident."
With left-hander Brian Matusz going for Baltimore, Martin missed some at-bats and opportunities to escape a 1-for-15 slump. He also is 3-for-30 overall in Grapefruit League play, but unconcerned.
"I feel good. I've been having solid contact," Martin said. "I feel aggressive, and that's huge for me. When I'm not passive and eager to swing the bat, that's when I know I'm where I need to be. Now it's just a matter of getting more reps. Today, I just couldn't get them."
Leroux brushes off rough outing in strong spring
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Chris Leroux experienced two things Sunday he never had before: allowing eight runs in a single inning, and being taken off the hook for a loss after leaving a game in an 8-0 hole.
Leroux, who had a spotless Spring Training until his encounter with the Orioles, was left shaking it off as one of those things -- and hoping Pirates decision makers saw it the same way.
"Probably the worst inning I ever had. Let's all be happy it's Spring Training," Leroux said after facing nine Orioles and recording only one out. "But I've been sharp up until this point, so this was just one day."
But was it a crushing day for the right-hander, who has had strange ends to Spring Training before? He was in line for a relief job a year ago, then tore a pectoral muscle in the final Grapefruit League game and was sidelined until June. Now this, after seven scoreless outings.
Manager Clint Hurdle sympathized with Leroux -- to a point -- over an apparently shrunken strike zone that led to catcher Russell Martin's ejection.
"That was a part of it. We've got people battling for jobs and [Martin] thought there were a whole bunch of pitches that we could've gotten strikes on that weren't," Hurdle said. "If he's getting pitches, who knows how the inning plays out for [Leroux]? But you also want pitchers to find ways to shut things down, to put an end to things, to stay aggressive and pitch with intent. A number of things got away from him today.
"You want to make sure not to be swayed by one-game results … but sometimes they can tell a big story."
Leroux was a relatively late replacement for Jeff Karstens, who was scratched from his scheduled start with shoulder discomfort about four hours prior to first pitch.
"It's not the easiest thing in the world, but I'm not going to make excuses," Leroux said. "I could've pitched four scoreless, and we'd be all smiling and happy now."
• James McDonald will make his final Spring Training start Monday, but it will be at Pirate City in a Minor League game. A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez have also been getting their work against Minor Leaguers. The approach enables rotation anchors to stretch out, while staff hopefuls continue to be evaluated against big league lineups.
General manager Neal Huntington is comfortable with that arrangement.
"For them, it's about conditioning now," he said. "Sure, you'd love to see them competing at this level, but for them, the pitch count is almost more important than facing the competition. They know what to do and how to do it."
• Lefty Francisco Liriano (fractured right arm) threw his third bullpen session Sunday, but has yet to face hitters.
• Brandon Inge, whose status with the club must be decided by Tuesday morning, is penciled in to start Monday night's game against the Rays at first base, his final shot at earning a spot on Pittsburgh's roster. Inge, invited to camp on a Minor League deal, is 5-for-32 in 12 games.
• Felix Pie went 1-for-2 Sunday, giving him eight hits in his last 17 at-bats and a spring average of .317.
• Andrew McCutchen, scratched from Saturday's game with flu-like symptoms, made a quick return to the lineup Sunday and hit his third homer of the spring. He may be experiencing slow start, hitting .231, but is already punishing left-handers in form. After going 2-for-3 against Orioles lefty Brian Matusz in a 12-10 loss, McCutchen is hitting .417 (5-for-12) against southpaws, whom he hit a .392 against last season.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.