Pirates players and fans have witnessed plenty of Joel Hanrahan's brilliance this season. They've seen the fastball in the high 90s and the devastating slider destroy opposing hitters time after time.
But perhaps the keenest observation came from Michael McKenry, the newly acquired catcher who first saw Hanrahan's stuff when he put on the armor and squatted behind the plate to try to catch it.
"My first thought was, 'This guy's fired up and ready to go,' " McKenry said. "You could tell that he's ready to compete, pitch one, coming out of the bullpen. That music comes on and the whole stadium went nuts. That's the guy you want to catch."
Hanrahan had converted 19 saves in 19 chances entering the weekend, striking out 29 batters in 32 1/3 innings and had a 1.39 ERA. He can throw his fastball, which averages 97.3 mph according to Fangraphs.com, past almost anyone. He demonstrated that against the New York Mets' Angel Pagan last weekend, striking him out swinging with shoulder-high fastballs. His slider is just as devastating.
"It's like a normal person's fastball that moves about a foot," McKenry said. "It's pretty special."
Hanrahan has improved as the season progressed. He allowed 15 hits and three earned runs in the month of April, but in May and June combined has allowed 10 hits and two earned runs. He hadn't allowed a hit or walked a batter in his past six appearances.
"I think hitters are starting to realize that I'm aggressive in the strike zone," Hanrahan said. "I'm throwing strikes now, where I've been in situations [before] where I haven't been throwing strikes. They're swinging early. They're making contact early."
Hanrahan's performance pops out, and for good reason, but he said he has felt good since joining the Pirates in a trade in 2009.
"That was a little different situation there," he said. "I was just kind of getting worked in at certain points. [Former manager John Russell] did a good job, him and [former pitching coach Joe] Kerrigan, when I was here, of putting me in chances to be successful. That kind of helped out."
Now Hanrahan is the lights-out closer of the Pirates bullpen, and manager Clint Hurdle talks often of structuring his relievers so they can get the ball to Hanrahan.
"He's very businesslike, works very hard," reliever Tony Watson said. "He's always into the game out there. There's no real messing around or anything, he's really serious. He's really into the hitters and focused on the game, and you can see how it pays off for him."
"In the clubhouse he's laid back, chill, really nice guy," McKenry said. "When he gets on the mound he gets a little attitude, a little more swagger that I think every closer needs."
Only two Pirates closers, Mike Williams in 2002-03 and Jose Mesa in 2004-05, recorded 20 saves before the All-Star break since saves became an official statistic in 1969. Hanrahan has a good chance to become the third. He also has a good chance to be a part of this year's All-Star game in Phoenix.
"I don't really think about it a whole lot," he said. "Being a reliever, things can change real quick. I think Andrew McCutchen will look pretty good representing the Pirates in the All-Star game, too."
To others, his candidacy falls into the black-and-white category.
"Without a doubt," said reliever Daniel McCutchen. "If it was just based on who's the best, it would be Joel."
When the issue of Major League Baseball realigning its teams was raised, Hurdle, who is missing two third basemen, two catchers and half a bullpen from his roster because of injuries, cracked a joke.
"My hands are pretty full right now," he said. "I'm not just sitting around mulling 15-team divisions."
Major League Baseball currently has 16 National League teams and 14 American League teams, with an East, Central and West division in each league. ESPN.com reported that MLB and the MLB Players Association, in their labor negotiations, have discussed evening the leagues at 15 teams apiece. The report also said the ownership committee eliminated divisions, so all 15 teams would compete for five playoff berths in each league. Currently, the three division winners and one wild card team make the playoffs from each league.
"What we need to measure is how many teams have stayed in play with the wild card and the format that it's in vs. how many teams have the opportunity to stay in play late in the season this [new] way," Hurdle said. "Whichever one has the opportunity to fuel the most income, would seem to be the way I would go, to keep more cities involved later."
One National League team would have to switch leagues under any plan that evens the leagues at 15 teams.
The Pirates entered 12 games of interleague play this weekend, three each against the Cleveland Indians, the Baltimore Orioles, the Boston Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays. The Pirates had a 75-124 record in interleague play. They are missing Ryan Doumit, their most frequent designated hitter when they played in American League ballparks, because he has a broken left ankle. Doumit has been the designated hitter in 12 games for the Pirates.
The Pirates went 2-13 in interleague play last season and lost their final six games, but started 2-1 this year against the Detroit Tigers. They are 2-4 all time against both the Red Sox and the Blue Jays, 3-3 against the Orioles. They took two of three from the Indians in 2010 and '09, and two of three from the Blue Jays in '08.
Bill Brink: email@example.com .