Dinner with fellow Pirates reliever Grilli changes Hughes' attitude

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SARASOTA, Fla. -- Jared Hughes couldn't help but hang his head in Wrigley Field's visitor's clubhouse one Sunday in September.

He threw just nine pitches that day. One was smacked into left field for an RBI single. The other landed among the Bleacher Bums for a grand slam.

The slam by Chicago Cubs rookie Anthony Rizzo cost the Pirates the lead, and later, the game.

"It was just a bad pitch, a bad situation," Hughes said. "Probably the toughest outing of the year for me because not only was it a tough outing, but we lost the game. I wasn't in a great place."

But as Hughes wallowed in the cramped clubhouse, Jason Grilli stopped at his locker.

"Dude," Grilli said to Hughes, "let's just go to dinner tonight. Let's go out, talk about stuff, relax."

The dinner helped Hughes take his mind off a rough outing, to gain an appreciation for his success that season and to help him understand what it meant to be a major league reliever.

"It was definitely one of those moments in my life I'll never forget, getting to sit down with Jason Grilli -- someone I idolize and look up to -- and pick his brain and talk to him about life and baseball," Hughes said.

Grilli picked a spot on Rush Street near downtown Chicago -- "Italian restaurant, of course," Grilli said -- to take the rookie reliever for a night away from the game.

"He ate like two dozen oysters," Hughes remembered.

But between each morsel of the mollusks, Grilli hoped he could pass down some of the lessons he learned as a young pitcher. Years before, Grilli had been in the same situation as Hughes -- a former starting pitcher trying to keep bad outings from haunting him as a reliever.

"I said, 'Do you realize how good you're pitching?' " Grilli said. " 'I don't think you do. You're going to let one bad outing get to you?' "

Hughes said he has always had a problem forgetting his failures on the mound.

"As a starter, I was able to have five days to shake it off and get back out there," he said. "But as a bullpen guy, the next day, you've got to be ready to go. I've really gone to Jason and looked at him because he's done a great job at that. He's in the moment."

At that dinner, Hughes was finally able to appreciate what had been a remarkable rookie season. Considered a long shot to make the major league roster, Hughes stuck with the Pirates for most of the season, posting an impressive 2.85 ERA.

Hughes said he doesn't pay a lot of attention to his personal statistics. He remembers his bad outings and keep track of the team's record, which after his blown save in Chicago was 73-72 -- one game over .500 after the team was 16-games over .500 one month earlier.

The pep talk from Grilli was needed, Hughes said. And, apparently, it worked.

Hughes made four appearances after that ugly outing in Chicago, allowing three hits in four scoreless innings to finish the season.

"He's evolved," Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said. "Through every experience, whether it be good or bad, he learns from it. His skin is getting thicker. He's getting iguana skin -- that's what relievers have to have."

Through seven outings in spring training, Hughes looks even better than he did in 2012. In 71/3 innings, Hughes has allowed one earned run and is yet to walk a batter. He also has 10 strikeouts, even though as a pitcher who relies heavily on a powerful sinker, he's not really looking for them.

He worked this offseason on pitching inside to hitters, especially left-handed hitters. That is a work in progress, but should pay dividends, Searage said.

But what make the biggest difference is his ability to quickly forget his bad outings.

"What Jason Grilli did last year was outstanding because it eased his mind and woke him up a little bit," Searage said.

It is only fitting then that as Grilli converts to the closer, Hughes will look to follow in his footsteps as the setup man.

Spring training report

Game: Pirates 0, Orioles 0, 10 innings

Starter: Jonathan Sanchez, 5 innings, 2 hits, 0 runs, 1 walk, 3 strikeouts, 1 wild pitch.

Top batter: Travis Snider 2 for 2, one double, two walks.

Of note: The Pirates' first shutout of the spring ended in a scoreless tie.

News of the day: Jonathan Sanchez might have pitched his way into the starting rotation. With a dazzling performance Thursday night, which featured good fastball command and sliders and curves that baffled batters, Sanchez was brilliant for a second consecutive outing. The Pirates have only a couple of days to make a decision about Sanchez's future with the team, but he has thrived recently as others who are competing for a spot in the rotation have floundered. A minor league free agent, Sanchez has an opt-out clause in his contract that takes effect Sunday if the Pirates don't plan to carry him on the 25-man roster. "It's hard to be waiting, waiting," he said. "If they need me here, I'm happy to be here." In addition to his strong start Thursday, Sanchez pitched three scoreless innings of one-hit baseball against the Houston Astros last week. "You got a younger, inexperienced ballclub that was swinging," Hurdle said of the Astros. "These guys, that was a pretty good lineup out there tonight."

Buried treasure: Gaby Sanchez, who was scheduled to hit fifth against the Orioles as the designated hitter, was scratched from the lineup late after an undetermined allergic reaction. Brad Hawpe replaced him in the lineup. ... John McDonald, the newest Pirate after joining the team in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday, arrived Thursday night in Florida.

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Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, and Twitter @msanserino. First Published March 22, 2013 4:00 AM


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