BRADENTON, Fla. -- If Jeanmar Gomez and Stolmy Pimentel indeed are competing for the same slot on the Pirates' staff -- right-handed long man and occasional starter -- Pimentel moved a stride ahead of his buddy Saturday.
Soon after completing his five-inning start against the Phillies, Pimentel was in the clubhouse, enthusiastically talking up Gomez, sharing an occasional laugh.
Pimentel, who had allowed three solo home runs, but little else while walking none and fanning three, tries to not think about being in competition with a friend.
"That's stuff I can't control," he said. "I'm just pitching for the opportunity, and the decision has to be theirs. Even if you think about it, there's nothing you can do.
Pimentel has somewhat been the Bucs' "secret project." Prior to taking the McKechnie Field mound on Saturday, he had pitched only two conspicuous innings, working two frames in the March 2 game in Clearwater against the Phillies. In-between, however, he has totaled seven innings in simulated, "B" and Minor League games.
Still, this was by far Pimentel's longest outing of the spring, and the fact he finished it strong -- retiring 11 of his last 12 men -- elated manager Clint Hurdle.
"I thought he had a good day. Nice sequences in later innings, four and five in particular," Hurdle said. "Three long balls ... but all solos. He doesn't get dinged, he keeps the game in check and got better as the game went along."
Pimentel has issued two walks in a total of 12 innings, and managers love guys who come out of the bullpen throwing strikes. There is much more that Hurdle likes about him, of course.
"When he got on top of his pitches," the manager said of the 6-foot-3 pitcher, "and got the ball down, he had a good downhill angle. The split started to come into play, and so did the breaking ball."
Stiff competition leaves bench spot up for grabs
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The free-for-all among candidates to be the left-handed bat on the Pirates' bench took a decided non-roster turn on Saturday. And did not get any easier to judge.
The judge, Clint Hurdle, loaded his bench against Phillies right-hander A.J. Burnett with the competition.
Three contenders not on the 40-man roster -- Chris Dickerson, Travis Ishikawa and Michael Martinez -- continued to burn by going 5-for-10 collectively and signing the 5-3 win before a record crowd of 8,566 at McKechnie Field.
Ishikawa hit a game-tying homer in the eighth, minutes before Dickerson delivered the go-ahead single.
Meanwhile, the three competitors on the roster -- Travis Snider, Jaff Decker and Andrew Lambo -- hung in with a 4-for-11 day.
Five more games remain before the Bucs break camp. Does Hurdle now wish for more time to make some tough decisions?
"No," he said. "Thursday will be time to go, so we're gonna have to make decisions. That's what the game is about."
Ishikawa has drilled three homers in 20 at-bats since coming off the shelf, where he had been kept by a strained right hamstring.
"We've tried to feed him at-bats, and he's been able to take advantage of them," Hurdle said. "He's grinding out at-bats, so he's competing well."
Martinez is quickly working himself into irresistible status. His singles in the second and the fourth -- both balls smoked -- gave him 12 hits in his last 25 at-bats. He finished 2-for-3, bumping his average up to .394. And he did that while starting at second base -- one of three positions at which he has appeared.
With the possible exception of Lambo -- who wore another 0-for-4 collar and now is 4-for-42, with all the hits singles -- no one is playing himself out of the competition.
"Everyone played a part," Hurdle agreed. "Snider scratched out a couple of hits, Dickerson bookended a couple of hits. Couple early hits from Martinez. Decker is on base all day [with two singles and two walks]."
And all the survivors remained on the island.
First number, last word
2: Pirates runners caught stealing on Saturday with A.J. Burnett on the mound -- and also opposition runners caught stealing all last season with Burnett on the mound for the Bucs.
"I just like the way we continue to play. Even in games we don't win, we are finishing the game, playing hard. Everyone is laying it out there every day." -- Hurdle, on what thrills him about this Pirates team, far beyond the 12-9-1 spring record.
• The plan is for Gerrit Cole to be the first Pirates pitcher to take his in-game hacks this spring. He is listed in the lineup for Sunday's game at the Orioles.
• Also in Sunday's lineup is Starling Marte, who was scratched due to headaches on Friday and continued to rest Saturday.
"Feeling much better," said Marte, who had a similar episode early last season, when the Pirates were in Detroit.
• The Pirates will not work out at PNC Park next Sunday, the only day between the exhibition set in Philadelphia and the Monday, March 31 season opener. Apparently, a new rule mandates three off-days during Spring Training, and the Bucs have had only two in Florida.
• Jason Grilli finally allowed a hit, but resorted to his old tricks to avoid allowing a run. Carlos Ruiz's single with one out in the sixth was the first of the spring off Grilli, who then also allowed a two-out double to Cesar Hernandez.
Grilli stranded the runners on second and third by striking out the side. He struck out Ryan Howard, Domonic Brown and Cody Asche.
• Charlie Morton, the latest Pirates starter to get in his work in Minor League action at Pirate City, hurled seven shutout innings against the Yankees' High-A team on Saturday, walking two and fanning seven while allowing seven hits.
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.