BRADENTON, Fla. -- Wherever Edinson Volquez goes, a spotlight follows. Not that he is so critical to the 2014 Pirates' fate. He is, however, the team's lone significant offseason addition and carries all the weight and consequence attached to that.
After three rough outings -- the last the roughest -- Volquez needed a sharp showing in his Saturday start against the Rays, just to give everyone a little breathing room. He finally got it, at the end of his 3 1/3-innings outing.
Volquez allowed runs in each of his first three innings, then retired the last four batters he faced, enabling him to leave the McKechnie Field mound on a positive note. Two groundouts and two strikeouts added up to his best sequence of the spring and a wide post-outing smile in the clubhouse.
"I'm very happy right now," Volquez said. "[Pitching coach Ray Searage] says it's a long process, and I feel like we're really close. We got a plan to work on my fastball command, and I threw a lot of first-pitch strikes today."
To be precise, to 15 of the 17 batters he faced, which is exceptional. Through the first three-plus innings, however, many of them reached base and four of them scored. At that point, Volquez had worked nine innings this spring, hadn't retired the side in any off them and allowed runs in seven of them, a total of 13. He entered the game with an ERA of 14.29 and left it with an ERA of 11.00.
"I know the number doesn't look good. But they love what I've been doing," Volquez said, referring to manager Clint Hurdle and Searage. "They have a pretty good idea what you want to do, and try to make you better."
"I'm encouraged," Searage said. "There were some good things there, and I'm going to hunt the good. He made some good strides; stuff like this doesn't happen overnight, and I'm not going to give up on this guy."
Scoreless effort latest in Schlereth's pristine spring
BRADENTON, Fla. -- When Daniel Schlereth took the mound for the ninth inning Saturday at McKechnie Field, some were of the opinion that he should have done so wearing an ESPN jersey. Turnabout is fair: His dad Mark had spent the week co-hosting the network's broadcast of a radio show wearing a Pirates jersey.
"Yeah, that would've been only fair," Dan Schlereth said.
Mark Schlereth, the former NFL guard, had done so to promote his son's bid to earn a seat in the Bucs' bullpen. Thanks, Dad, but Dan himself has done plenty in that regard, and continued the mission Saturday by hanging another zero.
In six spring outings of one inning each, tied for the team high, Schlereth has allowed five hits and no runs, with six strikeouts.
The left-hander is trying to return to the Majors for the first time since 2012, when he pitched the final six of his 94 big league games before being shelved by shoulder inflammation. Impressive what health and a revamped delivery can wreak.
"I lowered my arm slot a little bit, and it just feels better. I should also be more durable," said Schlereth, 27. "My shoulder is free when I have a lower arm slot, and another great thing about that is getting real good movement on my fastball. I'm not throwing as hard, but I can still sneak it by guys."
"He's feeling the best he's felt in years," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's shown the ability to get the ball inside to left-handed hitters. He's making some progress."
Schlereth makes it a point to not concern himself with the competition. From valuable incumbent lefty relievers Justin Wilson and Tony Watson, to other candidates enjoying solid springs (Adam Wilk, Andy Oliver and even Yao-Hsun Yang), it's a scrum.
"I'm really here just to prove to everyone that I'm healthy," Schlereth said. "And to contribute in whatever fashion I can. I just want to fit in and pitch well this year."
Bucs take 'wait-and-see' approach with Dickerson
BRADENTON, Fla. -- It is safe to say that Clint Hurdle is having a difficult time making up his mind on Chris Dickerson, one of the left-handed-hitting challengers for an outfield job. Also safe to make is the point that proving adept at handling center field would dramatically increase Dickerson's value as a fourth outfielder.
Dickerson thus got his second start in center Saturday in the Pirates' 6-3 loss to Tampa Bay. And he again had difficulty with the position. He came up quite short on a diving attempt for Cole Figueroa's soft liner in the second and then had trouble picking up the ball, allowing a runner to score all the way from first base on the error -- his second of the spring while playing center.
"We'll have to wait and see how it plays out -- with the opportunity, with the at-bats, with the makeup of the club," Hurdle said. "Can a guy be the extra outfielder if he doesn't fit into a starting role? Being able to play all three [outfield] positions is a nice plus."
Coming in with five hits in his last 10 at-bats, Dickerson also had a rough time with the stick, going 0-for-3 from the leadoff spot without getting the ball out of the infield.
Dickerson, 31, is the most experienced of the outfield candidates, and at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, has the most power among them. Although Travis Snider, if he gets ahold of one, can drive a ball a long way.
"He's here for a reason," Hurdle said of Dickerson. "He's been in a few organizations already, and hasn't stuck. The skill set will catch your eye: He is athletic, lays out, plays hard. So we'll see what fits best for us, but he's been fun to have in camp."
• Charlie Morton, who has been sharp in Grapefruit League action (one earned run in eight innings), was equally effective in stretching out to five innings in a Minor League game at Pirate City. Morton allowed three hits and a run, with one walk and four strikeouts, to Yankees Triple-A players.
• Also working in Pirate City, Mark Melancon started against the Yanks' Double-A club and gave up two hits and a run in one inning. The significance for Melancon was that he pitched on consecutive days for the first time this spring; he had gone an inning in Friday's game against Philadelphia.
• Saturday's sellout was the Pirates' fourth of the spring out of the nine games at McKechnie Field.
• Jeff Locke threw a bullpen session on Saturday, again testing his sore right side. The key will be how he feels the morning after.
First number, last word
.700: Michael Martinez's batting average in his last five games, after .231 in the first seven; he is batting .435 overall.
"They both have sweat equity that is very significant to me." -- Hurdle, complimenting how hitting coach Jeff Branson and his assistant, Jeff Livesey, have both spent a lot of time tutoring current Pirates players as they made their way through the Pittsburgh farm system.
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.