Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is a lot like you probably are. He loves giving the ball to Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli in the late innings of close games. Melancon has been the best eighth-inning set-up man in baseball this season. Grilli has been the best closer. But Hurdle can't give in to his urges, as much as you might like him to do it. You aren't responsible for his pitchers' long-term well-being. He is. He can't pitch Melancon and Grilli every game. He can't kill 'em with work.
So it was that Pirates reliever Bryan Morris started the eighth inning against the Washington Nationals Sunday instead of Melancon with the Pirates trailing, 3-2. Morris put a couple of guys on base and hung a pitch to Tyler Moore, who belted it into the left-field seats, assuring that the Nationals left town with a 6-2 win and a series victory.
So it was that Pirates reliever Tony Watson started the ninth inning Saturday against the Nationals instead of Melancon or Grilli with the score tied, 4-4. Watson hit a batter, gave up a single, allowed a double steal and was tagged for a sacrifice fly by Moore, who gave the Nationals a 5-4 win.
Hurdle was right not to use Melancon or Grilli in each situation. That goes back to something Jim Leyland -- the best manager in the game -- always said when he ran the Pirates. "You can't be afraid to lose a game or two if it keeps you from losing five or six down the road."
Melancon and Grilli aren't going to be any good to the Pirates in June and July if Hurdle overworks them in April and May. Hurdle knows he has to pick his spots with the two -- especially Grilli, who is 36 -- not to mention the others in his bullpen.
"There are seven guys out there," Hurdle said. "You've got to find appropriate times to use them all."
Melancon pitched a scoreless eighth inning Friday night in the Pirates' 3-1 win against the Nationals. He has allowed just one run in his 16 appearances, a total of 16 innings. Grilli struck out the side in the ninth to get his 12th save, most in baseball. He's 12 for 12 in save chances.
"[Melancon] needed 22 pitches Friday night, [Grilli] 18," Hurdle said. "I didn't think it was in our best interests to pitch them in a tied game the next day."
Hurdle must have been really tempted Sunday to use Melancon, especially with the Pirates having a day off today. But he said he is committed -- at least for now -- to using Melancon only in the eighth inning of games when the Pirates have the lead. "If things change, you adjust accordingly," Hurdle said.
The Pirates are 13-0 when leading after the seventh inning, mostly because of Melancon and Grilli. "Both have been lights out all year," Hurdle said. "In that sense, they've been a pleasant surprise. I expected them to be effective and good. But they've been better than that."
The Pirates starters need to improve and pitch deeper in games to give the team a better chance to get the ball to Melancon with a lead. Wandy Rodriguez labored through six tedious innings Sunday, needing 117 pitches. He gave up three runs to a Washington club that had batted just .211 in its previous 21 games, scoring two or fewer runs in 14. The Nationals also played most of the game Sunday without Bryce Harper -- their best hitter -- who was thrown out in the first inning after expressing his displeasure over a check-swing strike three.
Here's how bad the Pirates rotation has been: The starters have averaged five innings per start, fewest in the National League.
Talk about killing a bullpen.
"That had nothing to do with what happened these past two games," Hurdle said, blaming Watson's inability to finish Nationals hitters Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Moore despite having two strikes on each of them Saturday and the hanging slider that Morris threw to Moore Sunday.
"But we know we have to do more and better [as starters]," Hurdle added.
Francisco Liriano is expected to move into the rotation Saturday and start in New York against the Mets. He's got to be a step up, right?
James McDonald gets the ball Tuesday night against the Seattle Mariners at PNC Park. Certainly, he has to do more and better. Four of his six starts have been lousy.
Who knows what McDonald will do?
This much we do know, though:
Melancon and Grilli will be ready and available if needed.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published May 6, 2013 4:00 AM