Pirates entering stretch run toward Opening Day

Hurdle: Looking for 'better, more consistent efforts' in last week of Spring Training

Pirates entering stretch run toward Opening Day

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Pirates' stretch run toward Opening Day has begun.

Following Thursday's 6-5 loss to the Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium, there are seven days and eight games standing between the Pirates and a flight out of Florida. That's why manager Clint Hurdle declared Wednesday, "It's time to go."

"I like the group. I like our team," Hurdle said. "It's time to head in that direction with the team on the field and play more volume, more innings."

The Pirates ran out what looks like their Opening Day lineup Wednesday at McKechnie Field. John Jaso batted leadoff and played first base. Andrew McCutchen, batting second, was flanked in the outfield by Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. David Freese was at third base, Jordy Mercer at shortstop and Josh Harrison at second. Francisco Cervelli crouched behind the plate.

Expect to see a similar lineup from the Pirates as they play three night games this weekend, a break from the usual Spring Training slate full of sunny, 1:05 p.m. ET starts. They'll treat it more like the regular season, even sending out platoon matchups based on the starting pitcher.

Pirates' outfield goes deep

"We're going to try to run with the starters through the weekend, the three consecutive night games, to get them in some type of routine moving forward," Hurdle said.

That stretch begins Friday night against the Red Sox at JetBlue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers, Fla. Making it even more of a regular-season tune-up? Boston is scheduled to start left-handed ace David Price against most of Pittsburgh's everyday lineup.

The Pirates will send a split-squad team back to Fort Myers on Saturday afternoon to play the Twins at CenturyLink Sports Complex. The other half of the club will hang back in Bradenton, Fla., to play the Rays at 6:05 p.m. ET. On Sunday, the Pirates will play another night game at McKechnie Field against the Orioles.

Hurdle has challenged the Pirates' hitters to take their spring games seriously, to treat their March at-bats like April at-bats, in search of a quicker offensive start to the season. But given the nature of Spring Training, with Minor Leaguers filling the field in the later innings and relievers throwing out of order, it's still not the time to take the results too seriously.

"You don't have your full team. You're not set up using your bullpen as you would during a game," Hurdle said. "The last week, we're going to have our full squad out there more often than not, so we'll look for better, more consistent efforts."

The Pirates still have a few position battles to sort out. They need to decide on their fourth and fifth starters, their final bench spots and the last man in the bullpen. But they're beginning to turn their eyes toward Opening Day, and they'll show it over the last week of Spring Training.

"I'm ready to go. I want the season to start," left-hander Jonathon Niese said. "I'm looking forward to getting going."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.