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04/08/10 1:49 PM ET

Martin's injury a blessing in disguise

Spring groin problem allowed catcher to work on strength

PITTSBURGH -- Russell Martin isn't saying that the spring groin injury he suffered was a blessing, only that he made the most of his time off the field.

Martin was limited to six exhibition games, as much by the club's conservative approach as the perceived severity of the injury. But in two games, he appears to be a more confident hitter.

"It kind of helped me because I was able to lift more intensely throughout Spring Training, because I wasn't playing in games and it's made me stronger," said Martin, who slugged the club's first home run Wednesday night. His first of seven homers last year didn't come until the 69th game of the season.

Martin said that once he was able to start swinging this spring, the hitting philosophy of coaches Don Mattingly and Jeff Pentland began sinking in.

"Somebody can tell you over and over, but you have to feel it," he said. "I'm just starting to be able to put their words into action and it's making me feel better about myself as a hitter."

In simple terms, the philosophy is to create a swing path that maximizes the time the bat is in the hitting zone. When successful, there is a greater margin for error for the hitter to put the ball in play.

"The best in the game was Tony Gwynn," said Martin. "His bat was always in the zone. His bat path was so good."

Torre shuffles lineup in series finale

PITTSBURGH -- Outfielder Andre Ethier, who rolled his left ankle Wednesday, was one of five position starters from Wednesday night not in the lineup Thursday. The others were second baseman Blake DeWitt, third baseman Casey Blake, left fielder Manny Ramirez and catcher Russell Martin.

Torre said he's committed to resting Blake and Ramirez in day games after night games. In Blake's case, said Torre, it's hoped the rest will help Blake avoid hamstring and quad problems that recurred last year.

Torre said he planned to start Martin, but changed his mind because of the four-hour game Wednesday night, and he didn't want to push the catcher, who missed most of Spring Training with a strained groin.

Torre said he wanted to give Jamey Carroll a start at shortstop and rest Rafael Furcal, but was talked out of it by Furcal, who reached base three times Wednesday night and stole two bases after having only 12 all last year. So, Torre instead started Carroll at second base for DeWitt, saying the reasoning was the Pirates' left-handed starting pitcher Paul Maholm, not the fact that DeWitt committed a 10th-inning error that cost the game. "DeWitt's had great at-bats, no question, but this is an opportunity to get Jamey some at-bats," said Torre.

In addition to Carroll, reserves getting starts were Ronnie Belliard at third base, Brad Ausmus behind the plate, Reed Johnson in left field and Garret Anderson in right. Torre said he put Anderson in right because of the "smaller outfield" compared to left field.

"They play a speed guy [Lastings Milledge] in left field. [Batting coach] Donnie [Mattingly] called my attention to it," said Torre.

Healthy Furcal more aggressive on bases

PITTSBURGH -- Shortstop Rafael Furcal reached base three times Wednesday night, twice on walks, and stole two bases. That's the most obvious sign yet that he's a different player this year from the one last year that was still healing from a 2008 back surgery. He stole two in a game only once last year.

"I'm comfortable and it's way different when you feel healthy, 100 percent," said Furcal. "Everything comes easy. But when you feel something bothers you, you think about something going wrong when you try to do something. Last year was a disappointment. I stole only 12 bases. I used to steal 30 every year. Like I told you, I was afraid last year because I didn't want to get hurt. Now I'm 100 percent, I feel good and everything's different."

Furcal thinks the walks can be just as telling as the stolen bases.

"This year I'll try to be more patient," he said. "I swing at too many 2-0 and 3-1 pitches. This year, I will concentrate a little more on seeing more pitches. That will help me be confident."

Worth noting

Hong-Chih Kuo threw a 25-pitch bullpen session Thursday, saying his elbow felt "OK, like it usually does." Hardly an overwhelming endorsement as he tries to return from the disabled list, but Kuo's elbow is far from normal after undergoing four operations. He said he hoped to have another bullpen session Saturday in Florida.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.