CINCINNATI -- For the fifth consecutive game, third baseman Andy LaRoche and his stiff back were not in the Pirate's starting lineup. Before the game vs. the Reds, manager John Russell did little to shed light on the subject, saying he was hopeful LaRoche could return "in the next couple days."

LaRoche was scheduled to get in some running before Wednesday's game, and Russell said LaRoche -- the .256 hitter who hasn't played since going 0-for-4 Friday against the Braves -- continues to make progress. But the Pirates don't want to bring him back into the lineup too soon.

LaRoche, though, has indicated to at least one beat reporter that he's ready to return to the lineup.

"We don't want it to come back -- a stiff back like that," Russell said. "It starts feeling good, and you get back there too quick, and he'll go through the same thing again. We just want to make sure he's doing all the stuff he needs to do before he can get back out there again. If not, two or three days later, it could flare up again. We want to really get it under control."

Russell was asked if there was any chance LaRoche's back could land him on the disabled list as he continues to heal.

"We shouldn't have to," Russell said.

His replacements the past two days have performed well in LaRoche's absence. Delwyn Young, who played Monday, and Neil Walker -- who started at third base Tuesday and played there again Wednesday night -- have combined to go 4-for-9 with four doubles and two RBIs.

Walker adjusting to third base

CINCINNATI -- Before Tuesday's game, newly recalled Neil Walker had played third base exactly once this year, replacing Pedro Alvarez for a game in Triple-A Indianapolis. Mostly, he'd concentrated on second base, first base and outfield, while playing with the Indians, but Pirates manager John Russell needed Walker at third base Tuesday.

Walker had no problems in the field.

The Reds hit him two ground balls in the first inning -- including one on which Walker had to make a nice play -- and during Pittsburgh's 2-1 victory, he recorded five assists. One of his most impressive plays came in the fourth inning when Cincinnati catcher Ramon Hernandez hit him a tapper. Walker charged the ball, scooped it and threw a perfect strike to first base while on the run.

"It was great," Pirates left-hander Paul Maholm said. "The first inning, I got him a couple, and he made the running play on Ramon. You're definitely confident with him over there. He's athletic, and he knows what to do."

Although Walker hasn't played much first base this season, he has a wealth of experience at that spot.

"I played it a lot in Spring Training," said Walker, who also spent most of his time at third base while playing winter ball in Venezuela. "It wasn't too far removed. I felt comfortable over there [Tuesday]. I was taking ground balls early and making the throws, and I felt good."

Russell wasn't surprised by Walker's success. Though the Pirates' plan to move Walker around the infield -- and probably play him some in the outfield -- Russell didn't doubt Walker's ability to return to form quickly at third base. "He's still been playing infield and taking grounds balls," Russell said. "He's played third base a lot in the last few years. Going back to that position is not a big adjustment for him. If he had been playing outfield, it might be an adjustment for him. But he's been getting plenty of work in the infield."

Starting pitching showing good signs

CINCINNATI -- Though left-hander Brian Burres struggled in Monday's 7-5 loss, Bucs starters have been really good lately -- including seven scoreless innings from Paul Maholm on Tuesday and the one unearned run allowed by Zach Duke in seven innings Sunday. In the four games leading up to Wedneday's tilt vs. the Reds, the Pirates' starting pitchers have recorded a collective ERA of 2.28.

Pittsburgh manager John Russell can see his rotation beginning to solidify.

"It's getting better," Russell said. "I think you'd like everybody to go six or seven innings every night. We need to be more consistent. We're starting to show signs of that. We had a little hiccup here the first night with Burres. If we can limit those and keep pitching quality games, it gives us a chance. Throughout the last few weeks, I've started to see some better signs of that."

The fact that the top end of the rotation -- guys like Duke and Maholm -- has been pitching well and has begun to trickle down to the rest of the dugout.

"If those guys pitch well, a lot of times the rest of the guys will follow," Russell said. "It can get a little contagious, and guys start feeding off that."