Pirates closer Jason Grilli, left, leads one of the strongest bullpens in Major League Baseball.
By Bill Brink Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
MILWAUKEE -- After the first quarter of the season, the Pirates bullpen established two truths. It is pitching well, and it is pitching an awful lot.
The unit led the major leagues with a 2.74 bullpen ERA before a game Friday night against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. It also had pitched more innings than every team except the Houston Astros, who had a 14-33 record.
"I'm encouraged by our last turn of events with our starting pitchers," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "I'm very optimistic that that's going to ramp up."
Justin Wilson led the way with 28 innings pitched. Closer Jason Grilli had pitched 212/3 innings and setup man Mark Melancon 25.
Pirates vs. Milwaukee Brewers, 4:10 p.m., Miller Park, Milwaukee.
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LHP Jeff Locke (4-1, 2.73 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Fiers (1-2, 5.93).
Locke and his .203 average allowed to right-handers this season vs. a right-handed-heavy Brewers lineup.
Locke has a 1.80 ERA in four road starts this season.
As part of an effort to control the bullpen workload, Hurdle generally shies away from using a reliever three days in a row unless the pitcher has thrown fewer than 30 pitches total the first two outings. As important as innings pitched, Hurdle said, are number of pitches thrown and times that a reliever loosened in the bullpen. The Pirates track both in order to properly manage their relievers.
"If you'll watch bullpen activity other places, you'll see three days in a row," Hurdle said. "If you watch pitches and look at the box score, you'll see 35, you'll see 17 the next day.
"We're very concise about how we do it."
Hurdle and his staff blend what the numbers tell them with how the pitcher feels in making their decisions. The workload affects the pitchers differently.
"Sometimes these guys feel better the next day," Hurdle said. "You need to take advantage of that.
"I really couldn't use them, even if I don't use them that day, the next day is the day they really don't feel good. It's almost jet lag."
James McDonald felt good about the bullpen session he threw Friday and remains on schedule to make a rehabilitation start Monday.
"The ball felt better coming out," said McDonald, who has been on the disabled list because of shoulder pain since May 7, retroactive to May 1. "Things felt a little more crisp."
The Pirates shut down Jeff Karstens, who during his throwing program Friday felt pain in the right shoulder that has troubled him since spring training.
Charlie Morton will make a rehabilitation start Monday, rather than Sunday, for Class AAA Indianapolis because of the birth of his son, Charles Morton V, Thursday.
Indianapolis' pitching staff leads the International League with a 3.08 ERA. The core of its bullpen has helped with that.
Entering the weekend, the top four relievers in terms of appearances -- Vic Black, Mike Zagurski, Ryan Reid and Duke Welker -- had a cumulative 2.09 ERA.
"There's a number of guys in that bullpen that are doing a very professional job, and you would think, from an industry standard, that sometimes there's some people with some bullpens that have holes that might be looking as well," Hurdle said. "We're creating depth, I think we're creating interest as we move into the season."
Black is on the disabled list.
The available pitchers at Class AAA won't affect Hurdle's management of the Pirates bullpen, he said.
"I'm not going to overuse anybody knowing that I've got somebody in my back pocket down there if we need to go get him," Hurdle said.