Long before Joel Hanrahan positioned himself to become perhaps the Pirates' closer of the foreseeable future -- Evan Meek might have something to say about that -- he learned baseball from big brother on the sandlots of their native Iowa. Joel was the catcher, and Mark, three years older, was the budding pitcher.
"That was fine by me," Joel recalled. "No one else in Little League could catch him, so they'd move me up to his level."
Today, what Joel receives from Mark often stings even more than those fastballs: His criticism.
"That's what Mark does now. Watches every game, lets me know what I'm doing wrong."
Most of that comes via cell phone calls, texts and tweets -- actually, anyone can reach Joel on his Twitter account @hanrahan4457 -- but the most critical word of advice this summer came when the two got together in Des Moines during the All-Star break.
Joel had just blown a lead late in a July 11 matinee in Milwaukee, where the Pirates will return tonight for the first time since that excruciating, 6-5 loss. Mark, watching on his laptop that day, thought he knew what went wrong.
"To me, it looked like Washington all over again," Mark recalled. "Everything he was throwing was away, away, away."
Joel had put two aboard in that eighth inning, then quickly got two outs and, with the Brewers' light-hitting Carlos Gomez in the box, he was set to escape.
First-pitch slider, swing and a miss.
Another slider, another whiff.
But next came yet another slider ... a soft single to right field.
Game: Pirates vs. Milwaukee Brewers, 8:10 p.m., Miller Park.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: RHP James McDonald (2-3, 5.04) vs. LHP Chris Narveson (9-7, 5.69).
Season: Brewers, 10-5.
Key matchup: McDonald getting to two strikes. When he has a two-strike count on any batter, he finishes off with a strikeout half the time, 31 of 62.
Of note: Since being bombarded by the Brewers in the opening four losses by a 53-4 margin, the Pirates are 5-6, including victories of 11-9 and 15-3 in their most recent series July 19-22.
Gomez would tell reporters in Miller Park that day that he had been eyeing another slider, and Mark saw that, too, as part of a disturbing trend. So, rather than let his brother get through the break free from baseball worries, he instead showed him video of that at-bat, and he did so with nary a kind word.
"That guy in Milwaukee, he was looking away. He was comfortable," Mark said, fairly spitting out that last word. "That brought me back to something Joel and I learned at a tryout camp at Nebraska, when they were recruiting him. Their hitting philosophy was, with two strikes, eliminate half the plate. Foul away the inside pitch. Well, this guy from the Brewers had to deal with half the plate."
It was, indeed, Washington all over again.
Hanrahan had spent all his professional career as a starter until the Nationals converted him to relief in 2008. Remarkably, three months into that season, he was the closer.
That went mostly well until the following season, when Hanrahan suddenly started to get hit hard, had a 7.71 ERA and, before long, was out as closer.
"I think it was mostly that I was relying on one side of the plate too much. Everything was away," Joel said. "No matter who was at the plate, everything was away. And all the hitters knew that, so they'd lean out over the plate, and I was giving up a lot of hits. They were good pitches. The pitches are no different now, including the slider. It's just that hitters were comfortable."
He spit out that word, too.
Whatever the explanation, it was clear that Hanrahan was anything but comfortable in Washington.
"Joel's time there, that was tough for all of us," Mark Hanrahan said. "You could even see it from TV. A closeup of his face when he was [with] the Nationals, and his face now ... it's two different people."
Neal Huntington, the Pirates' general manager, and his staff saw a different Hanrahan, too, and said so immediately upon acquiring him and Lastings Milledge from Washington on June 30, 2009, for outfielder Nyjer Morgan and reliever Sean Burnett.
"We saw a guy who was struggling on the surface," Huntington said. "But our scouts saw a plus fastball, a plus slider. They saw a guy who looked a little shaken in his confidence. But, as we looked at numbers, we saw a batting average on balls in play that was extraordinarily high, unsustainably high."
That statistic, known in the business simply as BABIP, computes the number of balls in play that find places in the field to land. The higher it is, generally, the lousier the pitcher's luck.
"We thought a lot of his numbers were due just to misfortune," Huntington continued. "Above and beyond that, we saw a pitcher with the upside to pitch at the back end of the bullpen. No offense to Burnett, who's a solid major-league reliever, but, in our minds, Hanrahan was a guy who was going to pitch in high-leverage situations."
"We also saw a pitcher who could get a lot of strikeouts."
In 33 games after the trade, Hanrahan had a 1.33 ERA with 37 strikeouts and 20 walks and no home runs.
In 57 games this season, he has been even better, notwithstanding a 3.88 ERA that has been inflated by three bad outings. Opponents are batting .217 and, in a key figure for a closer, he has 76 strikeouts against 13 walks. The average of 12.29 strikeouts per nine innings ranks third among Major League Baseball relievers: Chicago's Carlos Marmol is at 16.2, Atlanta's Billy Wagner at 12.91.
Hanrahan credits the Pirates' recently fired pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan, as well as former closer Matt Capps, for helping him to take a more direct approach.
"Joel came here and got a fresh start," manager John Russell said. "The biggest thing was that he started trusting what he could do, throwing 95-98 with a slider to both sides of plate. And, you look at his strikeouts, and that's a huge indicator. You love to have a closer who strikes people out because that's another ball that's not put in play. And he's got the intangibles, too, the confidence."
"It feels great to have come this far, honestly, and a lot of that is confidence," Hanrahan said. "I really just look at it as being about consistency. You don't have to be 1-2-3 every time out there. But, if you can limit the bad outings to 1 of 10, that's better than 1 of 3."
To the surprise of no one, the key has been pounding inside with the fastball, as he did often in two more strong appearances Tuesday and Wednesday in victories against St. Louis.
"Sometimes, I'm coming in for effect, not always for Ks," Hanrahan said. "But even that opens up the freeze 0-2 fastball inside, if they're looking for a slider. Being able to pitch to both sides of the plate is helping out a lot. To me, the most important thing right now is that I don't want to get into a pattern."
One pattern Hanrahan would embrace is the routine of being a closer again.
But, as Russell reminded again the other day, "He's not our closer," even though Hanrahan has had six of seven save situations since previous closer Octavio Dotel was traded July 31. Management's position is that neither Hanrahan nor Meek will gain that designation this season, mostly because the aim is to have both available as options entering 2011. Thus, both will see duty in that role, with the other switching to setup.
Is Hanrahan ready, after how it went in Washington?
"I am," he answered quickly. "Closing is a little different. There are going to be times when you're up three runs, and you just attack with the fastball. Don't mess around. The biggest thing is baserunners. You put a guy aboard, and every team has someone on the bench -- a Jason Giambi, a Matt Stairs -- just waiting to launch on you. Sometimes, you have to pinch yourself, step back and say it's just another inning."
Joel and Mark Hanrahan each described their relationship as having strengthened, ironically, the more they have grown geographically apart. They once shared extensive time competing in baseball, basketball and golf -- "More golf than anything," Mark said -- but the key word there is competing. Mark is now a businessman in Des Moines, his baseball career done after a tenure at Iowa State and two years of independent ball. And, to hear them tell it, they are now pulling very much in the same direction.
"When we were younger, we were always fighting and stuff," Mark said. "But, when I watch him now ... I don't get jealous or anything like that. I just love seeing him do well. I watch all the games. If I can't see them live, I'll go back and watch on the computer. And I'm not watching just to root for him. I'm watching to help out."
If the Brewers' Gomez looks comfortable at the plate tonight, there likely will be another call.