Two words -- a familiar high school football cheer -- helped Jared Hughes find the form that made him a major league pitcher: Be aggressive.
It was 2011, and Hughes earned his first call-up to Class AAA Indianapolis, a move that put him in the bullpen on a permanent basis. There, pitching coach Tom Filer and manager Dean Treanor encouraged Hughes to be aggressive with his sinker and attack hitters.
"That kind of rubbed off on me," Hughes said. "I got way more aggressive, got the ball down, and that helped me become a better pitcher."
He arrived in Indianapolis with a career 4.47 ERA in more than five minor league seasons. This season, he has a 2.22 ERA with the Pirates, the best among all National League rookies.
- Game: Pirates at Brewers, 8:10 p.m., Miller Park.
- TV, Radio: Root Sports, KDKA-FM (93.7).
- Probables: RHP Kevin Correia (1-5, 4.30) vs. LHP Randy Wolf (2-4, 5.73).
- Key Matchup: Wolf vs. Neil Walker, who is 4 for 13 (all doubles) against him.
- Hidden stat: Wolf's strikeout rate (4.9 strikeouts per nine innings) is the lowest of his 14-year career.
His aggressive style seems contradictory to his personality. Hughes is pleasant and upbeat in the clubhouse, and his offseason hobby of choice is running or bodyboarding.
But, when that bullpen phone rings and his name is called, Hughes develops a piercing stare and intensity that he carries to the mound.
"He's been very focused," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He works extremely hard in preparation and conditioning. He's got a very resilient arm. And he loves to compete."
Hughes, 26, is a sinkerball pitcher whose slider is a work in progress, Hurdle said. Once mastered, his slider has the potential to be a weapon, which would make him an even more dangerous pitcher. He is a versatile, too, having pitched in long-relief and late-inning roles.
Hurdle wonders if his arm can get stronger and if he can develop a third pitch, which could enhance Hughes' value to the bullpen or starting rotation.
There also are variables that work against young pitchers.
"I have seen it happen where a guy gets hot and they go to the post and you pitch them a whole lot, then a year or two down the road, you never hear from them again," Hurdle said.
Hughes was a surprise addition to the major league roster last season, one of a handful of September call-ups that joined the team when rosters reached 40 players.
"I was not expecting it," he said. "I knew I had done well and that there would be somewhat of a chance. But, honestly, I never had that much success, and I was kind of thinking, well, they might not do it."
The minor league staff was so impressed with Hughes' transformation, they became strong advocates when the front office started looking for players who could make contributions to the Pirates in September.
Hurdle said that experience is always valuable, and it has shown in Hughes' success this season.
"If you've never been to the big leagues, you don't know what the big leagues are," Hurdle said.
"You don't know what it's about. You don't know really how to tackle it till you get here. And you realize, you know what, we're playing the same game."
The transition initially was smooth for Hughes, who did not allow a run in his first eight major league outings. But he allowed five earned runs over his final four outings of 2011.
"I think [that] had a lasting impression about what can happen." Hurdle said.
"I think he used it all for good in preparation for spring training."
One way Hughes prepared this offseason was by giving pitching lessons to children in El Segundo, Calif., near his hometown.
"Pitching is extremely basic," he said. "You go out there, you lift your leg, get balance, follow through and hit your spot. ... That's the same stuff I teach these kids, and it helps me remember so, when I show up in spring training, I'm fresh on my mechanics."
He said he noticed a difference in the way his pupils treated him after his major league debut. Some showed up in Pirates gear, asking for autographs before the start of the lesson.
"They definitely listened more," Hughes said.
"And the parents definitely listened more."pirates
Michael Sanserino: email@example.com, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino.