PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Pirates didn't win on Thursday, but the rain-soaked afternoon wasn't a total loss.
The Pirates got encouraging news on a couple of pitching projects in their 3-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park.
Starter Wandy Rodriguez settled down after a rocky start and showed no signs of the arm issues that ended his season in the first week of June last year. Meanwhile, free agent Edinson Volquez made his Pirates debut with two efficient innings of relief.
"I felt great," Rodriguez said after working the first six innings. "This was big for me."
He finished by retiring 11 of the last 12 batters he faced.
"The last three innings, it was downhill," manager Clint Hurdle said. "The change-up came into play, the curve was in the bottom of the zone. It was a tale of two pitchers. Early on, he was up [in the strike zone].
"He finished very well, a very good outing. It was a big confidence builder and momentum builder for him."
Rodriguez got some peace of mind from pitching effectively against major league hitters. That also gave the Pirates a good feeling about the role he can play in this year's rotation.
Rodriguez didn't pitch after June 5 last year because of pain in his left forearm.
To say Volquez didn't get good results in spring training would be an understatement. He pitched 14 innings, allowing 19 hits with seven walks, 12 strikeouts and three home runs. His ERA was 9.64.
But he pitched two clean innings against the Cubs, throwing 21 of 28 pitches for strikes.
He is scheduled to make his first start Sunday against the St. Louis Cardinals. Thursday was his day to throw in the bullpen. He was used in relief because the bullpen was taxed after two extra inning games to start the season.
Getting into Thursday's game was better for him than a sideline session, according to Hurdle.
"It's another step forward for him," Hurdle said. "This might be as good as he's looked. It was very efficient. There was good bite to the curveball, he threw some good change-ups, he threw some good two-seamers, he elevated the four-seamer when he wanted to, a very solid delivery. Another confidence builder.
"This guy just wants to pitch and compete and do well for his team."
Why did Hurdle have Starling Marte bunting with two strikes in the eighth inning on Thursday?
That was Marte's idea, and Hurdle didn't think it was a good one. Marte fouled off the pitch for a strikeout.
"He chose to be confident and think he could pull it off," Hurdle said. "When he came back, we had a chat. I said I was confident he could get a hit with two strikes, and drive a ball in the gap with two strikes. He felt compelled to work that way."
Gaby Sanchez also attempted a bunt and popped out. Hurdle gave the bunt sign on the first pitch, but did not order it again. Sanchez bunted on his own.
"We let him swing away and he felt compelled to try [to bunt] as well," Hurdle said
As the Pirates struggle to score runs, they can't afford to give away outs.
"That played into it, but that wasn't all of it," Hurdle said. "Two runs, we have to manage our at-bats better, connect some dots better. All in all, we won a series and we'll move on."
The St. Louis Cardinals visit for the weekend, a rematch of last year's divisional series that went five games.
"There's not a lot of surprises," Hurdle said. "They're a very good ball club. They'll be ready when they come in here, and we'll be ready for them. It should be good baseball."