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Pirates D'Amico gets nod as 5th starter

Saturday, March 22, 2003

By Robert Dvorchak, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Jeff D'Amico has won the competition for the fifth spot in the pitching rotation, but only after diagnostic tests showed his surgically repaired shoulder and elbow are sound.

Jeff D'Amico is the Pirates fifth starter. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

The Pirates also trimmed their roster by sending catcher Humberto Cota to Nashville, meaning Craig Wilson will be the backup to Jason Kendall this season.

Wilson celebrated his roster spot by getting three hits yesterday, including a two-run double off Roger Clemens, in the Pirates' 6-4 victory.

Pokey Reese had a two-run homer off Clemens, who hit him with a pitch his next time at-bat. Kris Benson went three innings and did not return after a 60-minute rain delay.

D'Amico, who got the word about his status Thursday night, said: "This is where I wanted to be since the beginning. Everything's been good. No big deal. [Health] was the biggest question. It's been answered."

Manager Lloyd McClendon said the choice was "pretty cut-and-dried" because of D'Amico's performance in spring games and his major-league record. The Pirates believe he is as healthy as he was in 2000 when he was 12-7 and posted the third-lowest earned run average (2.66) in the National League. In six major league seasons, D'Amico is 35-34 with a 4.41 ERA, but he has been on the disabled list five times in the past six years.

"At this particular time, we think he's the best fit for our rotation. He earned it," McClendon said. "I see the bite to the breaking ball. I see the downward plane. As we sit, as we speak right now, I see a healthy pitcher. My hope is that he stays healthy the entire year."

With the rotation set, the only real competition remaining is in the bullpen. Julian Tavarez and Salomon Torres, who had been competing for the starter's job, are now in the mix as relievers.

The Pirates will carry 12 pitchers, and only four of the seven relief spots are definite -- Mike Williams, Scott Sauerbeck, Brian Boehringer and Joe Beimel. Because Mike Lincoln's shoulder injury makes him a candidate for the disabled list, that leaves six candidates for the final three spots, although Matt Herges has the inside track for a job. Herges has a guaranteed contract

and pitched a perfect inning against the Yankees yesterday.

Also in the running are Torres, Tavarez, Brian Meadows, Dennys Reyes and Pat Mahomes. Meadows pitched two scoreless innings yesterday and was the winning pitcher.

In other moves, pitcher Rolando Arrojo, a non-roster invitee, was given his release yesterday. Optioned to Nashville was reliever Duaner Sanchez, and Nelson Figueroa, a non-roster invitee, was reassigned to minor-league camp.

McClendon would like to add a left-hander to the bullpen of right-handers, which gives Reyes an edge.

The Pirates sent catcher Humberto Cota to Nashville for a third consecutive year. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Tavarez also seems to have an edge, given that he can be used as a spot starter and a long reliever. He also has a 60-45 record in eight major-league seasons. General Manager Dave Littlefield noted a major-league team normally uses eight to 12 starters a year because of injuries, and it's his job to have capable backups available to step in.

The decision to send Cota to Nashville for a third season was a tough one. While he is still feeling the effects of surgery on his left hand, Cota had an option left. Wilson gives the Pirates, who were starved for runs last year, a more powerful bat coming off the bench. In an emergency, utility man Rob Mackowiak will catch.

"Humberto Cota's going to be a big league catcher. I think he has a tremendous career ahead of him. But the fact is, for us to have him here sitting on the bench and not continuing his development just doesn't make sense. So he needs to be able to go out and play," McClendon said. "Craig has done a fine job. He certainly earned his spot as a backup catcher. I feel very comfortable with him back there."

McClendon also feels better about the quality and depth of his roster.

"We're right where we want to be going into the last week. I really like what I see right now," McClendon said.

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1959.

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