Bullpen 'sharks' after entering

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ST. LOUIS -- Since the start of the season, Pirates closer Jason Grilli has taken to calling the bullpen the "shark tank." His reasoning? The relievers are a group of aggressive pitchers who rarely relent when they "smell blood in the water."

But it could also be that they rarely let opposing prey get home free.

Entering a three-game series Friday against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Pirates bullpen allowed 20.8 percent of inherited runners to score, the second-lowest mark in the National League and the fourth-lowest mark in the majors. It was well below the league average of 33.0 percent.

Scouting report

  • Matchup:

    Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 4:15 p.m., Busch Stadium, St. Louis.

  • TV, Radio:

    Root Sports, KDKA-FM (93.7).

  • Probables:

    RHP A.J. Burnett (1-2, 2.79 ERA) vs. RHP Jake Westbrook (1-1, 1.25).

  • Key matchup:

    Westbrook vs. Pedro Alvarez, who is 11 for 19 (.579) with two home runs and eight RBIs in his career against him.

  • Hidden stat:

    Burnett allowed 12 earned runs on 12 hits in 22/3 innings in 2012 in his only career start at Busch Stadium.

Chris Leroux, whom the Pirates designated for assignment after two rough outings, is responsible for allowing two of the reliever's five inherited runners to score. If his numbers are removed from the statistical group, the team has allowed just 13.6 percent of inherited runners to score.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said in some league circles, relievers who allow 25 percent or fewer are considered good at inheriting runners. That the entire Pirates bullpen is under that benchmark speaks volumes about how effective the relievers have been this season.

"Everybody's pitching well right now, so that gets people out," Hurdle said. "When you run in those streaks where you're not pitching well -- you come on in, you hang a ball and before you know it, two or three [runs] are in. Our guys have been sharp from pitch one. They've been mindful from pitch one."

Grilli has long said inheriting runners is one of the most challenging aspects of the job and has advocated for more of an emphasis of that statistic in the game.

"That's the definition of a reliever," he said.

Between the team's starters and relievers, the pitching staff is holding opponents to a .191 batting average with runners in scoring position.

"You've got to be ready pitch one, no matter when you come in," left-handed reliever Tony Watson said. "But as far as runners on base, your awareness has to be that much more heightened."

But some of these statistics also suggest the Pirates are due for a regression. Entering Friday, the relievers are stranding 87 percent of all baserunners, and opposing hitters have a .214 batting average on balls in play. The league average, which is closer to .300, suggests that more of those balls will turn into hits as the season moves along.

But for now, Grilli couldn't be more excited by the early success.

"I know how hard it is," he said. "Coming into those situations, it's not fun. And if you don't do the job, it's like 'Shoot, he failed.' "

Triple overturned

Major League Baseball overturned a scoring decision from the Pirates' 5-3 victory Wednesday against the Phillies, turning Starling Marte's RBI triple into a three-base error on Phillies second baseman Chase Utley.

With Clint Barmes on second, Marte hit a shallow pop to right field that Utley tried to track down. The ball caromed off Utley's glove and into foul territory.

The decision cost Marte a share of the league lead in triples.

Injury update

Reliever Jose Contreras (Tommy John surgery) was promoted to Class AAA Indianapolis Friday and is scheduled to pitch consecutive outings Sunday and Monday. If those go well, he could join the Pirates on Friday when they start a three-game series against the Washington Nationals at PNC Park. ... Jeff Karstens (right shoulder inflammation) threw 34 pitches in two innings of a simulated game Friday in the bullpen at Busch Stadium. The Pirates will consider sending him to Class A Bradenton to begin a rehabilitation assignment.

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Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino.


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