ST. LOUIS -- A close eye is being kept on three pitchers impressively rehabbing from injuries -- left-hander Francisco Liriano and righties Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens -- but another veteran flying under the radar figures to beat them all to Pittsburgh.
Jose Contreras, the 41-year-old Cuban emigre, could be in the Pirates' PNC Park bullpen May 3 when they kick off their next homestand.
Working his way back from Tommy John surgery in June, Contreras has wowed baseball people with his stuff and command. Most recently, he had back-to-back hitless outings with Double-A Altoona, and he has stepped his rehab up to Triple-A Indianapolis.
He will get another test of pitching in consecutive games Sunday and Monday with the Indians. If all goes well, manager Clint Hurdle indicated Contreras could "join us in early May."
How the Pirates would reasonably accommodate him could be another matter. Entering Friday night's game, the Bucs' bullpen collectively ranked second in the Majors with an ERA of 1.80.
Predominantly a starter for the first seven years of his Major League career, Contreras transitioned to being an important relief cog for the 2010-12 Phillies. In those three seasons, he made 101 appearances, with 85 strikeouts in 84 1/3 innings.
Number to note
51: Games it took the 2012 Pirates to move above .500 for the first time, at 26-25 on June 1. They took a record of 13-9 into Friday night's series opener in St. Louis.
Quote to note
"If there's one thing I've learned, it's that the better your bullpen is, the smarter you are as a manager." -- Hurdle, who has looked a genius as Pirates relievers have compiled a 1.80 ERA, 6-2 record and converted nine of 10 save opportunities.
• Liriano, who allowed four hits and a run in five innings for Indianapolis on Thursday night, has an obscure task during his three remaining rehab starts: Get comfortable swinging the bat. Besides adjusting to that as a former lifetime American Leaguer -- he has gone 2-for-17 in Interleague Play -- the healing fracture in his right arm could be more of an issue swinging than throwing for the southpaw who also bats left-handed.
• Karstens said "everything felt fine" during his simulated game early Friday in Busch Stadium, and bench coach Jeff Banister, who caught him, concurred. "The ball was coming out of his hand fine. It's all part of the process," Banister said.
Karstens, still considered by Hurdle "a starter, because that's where the value is," will most likely go to Florida next to continue his rehab from shoulder inflammation in extended Spring Training.
• Friday, April 26, was the 11th anniversary of Hurdle's Major League managerial debut. Promoted in the morning from Rockies batting coach to their manager, Hurdle piloted a 4-1 win over the Phillies that night and remained undefeated through six games, as Colorado swept Philadelphia -- and the Pirates.
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.