James McDonald on expectations, Pirates' staff

PITTSBURGH -- James McDonald takes the ball for the Pirates in Thursday afternoon's finale of the season-opening series against the Cubs. McDonald will be looking for his first win since Aug. 28, when he enjoyed a brief respite from a difficult second half.

He will be followed, when the Bucs hit the road to Los Angeles, by Jonathan Sanchez on Friday and Jeff Locke on Sunday, both out to justify the Pirates' faith in them.

Manager Clint Hurdle wants them to do well. Hurdle is confident they will do well. But Hurdle does not place the Pirates' long-term fortunes on them doing well.

"These guys in the three-four-five spots all understand we've got other guys coming back," Hurdle said, with uncommon candor. "It's not a threat. It is what it is, and we have depth. So they know the importance of coming out and pitching clean and giving us chances to win games."

The pitchers constituting the depth of which Hurdle spoke all took recent steps on the comeback trail in Florida:

• Left-hander Francisco Liriano (fractured right arm) threw a 20-pitch batting practice on Tuesday, and will return to the mound Friday.

• Right-hander Charlie Morton (Tommy John surgery) threw a 35-pitch simulated game Wednesday.

• Only righty Jeff Karstens (shoulder inflammation) has yet to throw, limited to rehab exercises; he could play flat-ground catch by the weekend.

• Righty Jose Contreras (Tommy John surgery), a future consideration for the bullpen, pitched in extended Spring Training on Sunday.

The Pirates are hopeful Liriano will be ready to join up by mid-May, with Morton not too far behind. It is the reason neither was placed on the 60-day disabled list, which would have kept them unavailable until June 1.

Hurdle striving for stability with Pirates' lineup

CHC@PIT: Alvarez singles home a run in the ninth

PITTSBURGH -- Clint Hurdle has often talked admiringly of the 2012 Reds' starting rotation having included a quartet of 200-plus innings pitchers, viewing it as a key to their runaway NL Central title.

But perhaps the Pirates manager was also envious of the Reds' stable lineup, and has taken an early step to trying to keep up with it.

"There's something to be said for continuity, guys walking in and not having to look at the lineup [to see who is playing]," Hurdle said. "The more guys you have who can play every day, the better team you're going to have."

Hurdle was speaking generically, not about the Reds. But Cincinnati last season did have four players with over 490 at-bats (even with Joey Votto missing much of the season with a left-knee injury). The Bucs had a pair, Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez.

For Wednesday night's game against the Cubs and Edwin Jackson, Hurdle rolled out the identical lineup he deployed in Monday's opener against another right-hander, Jeff Samardzija.

All last season, Hurdle used the same lineup in back-to-back games only six times, and not before May 25-26. Only once was it the same lineup for three straight games, wrapped around the All-Star break. With left-hander Travis Wood going for Chicago in Thursday afternoon's series finale, that isn't going to happen yet.

Worth noting

• Jeff Locke, scheduled for his season-debut start Sunday in Los Angeles against the Dodgers, tuned up Tuesday with a six-inning, 91-pitch extended spring outing in Bradenton, Fla.

• Having a trio of southpaws in their rotation is not that unusual for the Bucs. Only three years ago, Paul Maholm and Zach Duke were in the regular rotation, and Brian Burris also made 13 starts. In 2008, a quartet of lefties (Tom Gorzelanny, Phil Dumatrait, Maholm and Duke) had double-figure starts.

• Those funky white hats with "Pirates" spelled out in front that you may have seen players wearing while being interviewed? That is what they are, specified "interview hats," which Major League Baseball has distributed to all 30 teams.

First number, last word

12: Runs the Pirates have scored in A.J. Burnett's 11 losses as a member of the team -- not just while he was still in the games, but total.

"It means I won't have to run as much." -- Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen, on what it means to have speedster Starling Marte adjoining him in left field