Hurdle tabs Francisco Liriano as Opening Day starter

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Except for the lack of 40,000 witnesses, festive bunting and a brilliant skyline, Francisco Liriano took the McKechnie Field mound Wednesday morning under the same conditions he can expect Monday afternoon in PNC Park.

A bright sky and 50 degrees: perfect environment in which to prep for a March 31 Opening Day assignment in Pittsburgh. But to get to fulfill that real honor, the left-hander had to pass a simulated test of his tight left groin muscle.

He did that, for three innings and 55 pitches, throwing to Pittsburgh Minor Leaguers. Liriano pronounced himself "ready to go" after the drill that also included sprinting to cover first base and fielding bunts.

The official confirmation of his Opening Day status, however, will depend on how he feels when he checks in at McKechnie Field on Thursday morning.

"We'll see how it feels tomorrow, if it's not too sore," Liriano said. "But today, it feels great. It didn't bother me. I didn't feel it at all. I think I'm ready to go."

Pitching coach Ray Searage agreed.

"He looked fine, his normal self. We'll just have to see how he feels in the morning," said Searage, who skipped the Bucs' ride to Fort Myers, Fla., and the Grapefruit League game against the Twins to monitor Liriano's pitching.

The increasing tightness in the area had forced Liriano out of last Thursday's start against Baltimore after 76 pitches, about 15 pitches shy of the target the staff would have liked to see him reach. Liriano shrugged off not being ideally stretched out.

"I think I'm game-ready," Liriano said. "As long as it doesn't bother me, I'll be OK. I didn't feel it at all, from stretch or windup. And I threw everything like a regular game."

Upon receiving Searage's report, general manager Neal Huntington could only concur with the party line.

"As we said from Day 1 that he had the tightness, it's a day to day type situation," Huntington said. "He felt good through all the activity today and we'll see where he's at tomorrow."

First number, last word

3.57: The Pirates' team spring ERA, with one Grapefruit League game remaining; the Bucs staff had a spring ERA of 4.74 last year prior to posting a regular-season figure of 3.26, the third best in the Majors.

"I want to make sure to go out there for 33-35 starts, not just two or three and then get shut down. I want to be healthy for the whole year, not for one game." -- Scheduled Opening Day starter Liriano, on being smart, not rash, about the tight groin muscle that still has the assignment in question.

Worth noting

Edinson Volquez also pitched one inning Wednesday morning in the simulated game set up primarily for Liriano.

• Lefty reliever Justin Wilson worked one scoreless inning, giving up one hit and striking out two, Wednesday in a Pirate City start against Yankees Double-A players.

Jeff Locke confirmed what his three-inning pitching line in Tuesday's start against Minor Leaguers -- no hits, five strikeouts -- suggested: "Everything felt great."

Locke's season-opening status would appear to be one of two possibilities: the disabled list (right-side discomfort) or Triple-A Indianapolis.

"But we'll see where it leads," Locke said of his outing. "You never know."

• With his five shutout innings in Wednesday's 2-1 win over the Twins, Brandon Cumpton finished the spring allowing one run in his final 13 2/3 innings. Cumpton also owns the fifth longest current scoreless streak in all the Majors: he didn't allow a run in his last 15 innings with the Pirates last season.