With unpredictable rotation, pressure is on young Pirates bullpen

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Two summers ago, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle summoned a rookie left-hander from the bullpen. Jose Veras had blown a 1-0 lead, and Hurdle needed the left-hander to keep the score tied against the fifth and sixth hitters of the Arizona Diamondbacks order.

That left-hander, Tony Watson, struck out right-hander Chris Young -- the first batter he faced in his major league career -- and Juan Miranda to end the inning. Andrew McCutchen eventually won the game with a walk-off home run in the 12th inning.

Now Watson is one of the members of the bullpen tasked with pitching in the late innings and preserving leads for closer Jason Grilli. Right-handers Mark Melancon and Jared Hughes, along with Watson, will pitch the seventh and eighth inning.

"When I first got here a couple years ago, one of the first things I learned was that it's a closer's bullpen," Watson said. "To have everybody be a part of it is exciting. It doesn't matter what inning it is. We're trying to go out there and protect a lead."


Game: Cubs at Pirates, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park

TV, Radio: Root Sports, KDKA-FM 93.7

Probables: RHP Edwin Jackson (10-11, 4.03 in 2012) vs. LHP Wandy Rodriguez (12-13, 3.76)

Key matchup: Rodriguez vs. Alfonso Soriano, who has a .377 career OPS against Rodriguez with 12 strikeouts in 41 at-bats.

Hidden stat: Rodriguez walked two or fewer batters in each of his final six starts last year.

Monday, the bullpen pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings. Justin Wilson, Hughes and Melancon combined to strike out five without allowing a hit or a walk.

Last season, the Pirates bullpen was one of the best in baseball in the first half. The unit had a 2.63 ERA and a .653 opponent on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Hurdle made efforts to preserve the bullpen, avoiding using pitchers three days in a row and tracking innings pitched and appearances made, but the unit regressed. The second-half ERA jumped to 4.15 and the OPS increased to .700.

Chance played a role in the bullpen's first-half success. The unit had a .262 batting average against on balls in play the first half of the season.

In the second half, that increased to .307, close to the major league average of about .300.

Uncertainty in the starting rotation will place an increased focus on the bullpen. James McDonald has shown top-tier stuff but has yet to do so for a full season. Jonathan Sanchez is talented but erratic, and Jeff Locke is talented but relatively inexperienced.

The relievers enjoy pitching in close games when given the opportunity.

"I feed off it," Hughes said. "Give me the ball. I'm ready to go out there and get after it."

Hurdle said Melancon likely will pitch the eighth inning but all three will handle the late innings.

Hughes spent spring training improving his slide-step and move to first, as well as throwing his sinker on the inside corner against left-handed batters. Working inside doesn't take a physical adjustment, he said, but more of a mindset.

"You just have to commit to the pitch and get it in there," he said. "I've always been able to do it, but it's just a matter of mixing it in and actually doing it."

Watson said he felt "light years" ahead of where he was before that 2011 debut. Watson was a starter in the minors until 2010, when he converted to relief at Class AA Altoona, so he's still picking up the intricacies of relief pitching.

"The manager might pinch-hit different guys," he said. "Certain pitch counts, guys are trying to do different things with their approach up there, or if there are runners on base. Just learning every time I go out there and trying to build off of it."

The bullpen's decreased production was not the only reason the Pirates did not contend in September after playing their way into contention at the trade deadline. Their starting pitching performance decreased, though not as drastically, and the return of the offense to normal levels after an off-the-charts June and July provided less margin for error.

NOTES -- The San Francisco Giants claimed minor league right-hander Hunter Strickland off waivers from the Pirates. The Pirates designated Strickland, 24, for assignment, along with Clint Robinson, last week to make room for Brandon Inge and Jonathan Sanchez on the 40-man roster. The Toronto Blue Jays claimed Robinson off waivers. Strickland did not pitch in 2011 due to injury but struck out 58 batters in 87 2/3 innings between Class A Bradenton and Class AA Altoona last year. He was a starter in Bradenton but pitched out of the bullpen in Altoona. The Pirates saw him as a reliever despite his 2.98 ERA in the Bradenton rotation last year.

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Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.


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