In all but seven of the 29 games Mark Melancon appeared in prior to this weekend's series against the Cincinnati Reds, he entered in the eighth inning. Twice this past week, the eighth inning became the 10th inning before the Pirates won in the 11th. "We've got to find some other guys to pitch that eighth inning," manager Clint Hurdle said.
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Hurdle needs other pitchers to help in the role not because of Melancon's performance, which has been exemplary, but because Hurdle wants to keep Melancon fresh. He said lefty Justin Wilson and righty Vin Mazzaro will chip in during the eighth inning.
No longer concerned with pitching deep into games like he had to be as a starter in the minors, Wilson's fastball averages 94 mph and reaches the high 90s. The combination of that velocity with his mid-70s curveball makes his pitches hard to hit.
"I just want to keep it rolling," Wilson said. "We just prepare to pitch whenever that phone rings."
Wilson struck out 30 batters in 32 innings prior to the weekend series. In the bottom of the ninth inning of a 0-0 tie Tuesday at Comerica Park, Wilson faced the heart of the Detroit Tigers order: Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. He struck out Hunter and got Cabrera to ground out. Fielder singled, but Victor Martinez flied out.
"Justin has been given a little bit more along the way from time to time," Hurdle said.
The Pirates grabbed Mazzaro in a trade in November. After four years bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen in Oakland and Kansas City, Mazzaro has performed in the Pirates' bullpen. He had not allowed a run in the 10 appearances leading up to the weekend series.
"We need to give him that opportunity, number one, to get him in there for the experience value," Hurdle said. "And number two, to see if the stuff plays the same, because that's always the challenge for the individual pitcher."
The Pirates' bullpen had a 2.64 ERA, the best mark in the major leagues, entering the weekend. They received some help from a major league-low .254 batting average on balls in play and an 83.1 percent strand rate. Wilson believes the bullpen can pick up the slack.
"What it will come down to is, if Mark needs a day, whenever that phone rings down there, whoever's name's called will get ready to pitch," he said.
"I think everybody down there can go out there and throw whatever inning they need them to throw."
The particulars of their performance were unknown to Wilson. When asked if he paid attention to the unit's dominance compared to the rest of baseball, he said, "Couldn't tell you, man."
Oh, those scamps!
The Detroit Tigers welcomed back Brandon Inge with the same treatment he gave them from the dugout during his 12 seasons there.
"I would throw gumballs at [Miguel Cabrera] or whoever was playing out there if I wasn't playing," Inge said. "I guess they remembered it, because I'm on the field and they started chucking it at me.
"I was dying laughing."
Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski had a different reception for Inge. Dombrowski presented Inge, who played in nine games for the Tigers in 2012 before they released him at the end of April, with a ring from the Tigers' victory in the American League Championship Series last fall.
"It was a pleasant surprise," Inge said. "Very nice gesture, to be honest with you, with as little time as I spent there [last season]. I appreciated it more than he knew."
The Tigers drafted Inge in the second round in 1998. He played for them from 2001-12, after which he joined the Oakland A's. He was there -- along with Jason Grilli -- for the 2006 World Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals and made the All-Star team in 2009. He has known Dombrowski for years.
"He's a guy that appreciates how hard you play," Inge said. "He respects you. He's fair."
Hurdle applauded the move.
"They have great awareness," he said. "Brandon was only here for nine games last year but was here  years. ... did a lot for the organization and the community. His service speaks for itself. Good for him, well done, well deserved."
Looking ahead: Braves
The Pirates travel to Atlanta for a three-game series against the Braves beginning Monday. The Braves recently had an eight-game winning streak and have one of the best records in baseball.
Despite the return of Brian McCann and the presence of Gerald Laird, the Braves have hung onto Evan Gattis, and it paid off. Gattis had 12 home runs in 150 plate appearances before Friday' games in his first season in the major leagues. The Braves have put him at left field and first base -- no easy feat on a roster containing Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman -- to keep his bat in the lineup.
B.J. Upton, who signed a five-year, $75.25 million contract in the offseason, entered the weekend with a .478 on-base plus slugging percentage. His 62 strikeouts were the seventh most in the major leagues. Jason Heyward, who missed some time because of an appendectomy, has also struggled. Heyward had a .253 slugging percentage entering the weekend.
Stay current with the Pirates by joining PG+ for access to PBC Blog at www.post-gazette.com. First Published June 2, 2013 4:00 AM