Pirates relievers eager to pitch in again

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Before a mid-March spring training game — the period of the exhibition season where opening day seems simultaneously around the corner and, after weeks of monotonous workouts, far away — Tony Watson voiced his optimism.

“We’re just excited now,” he said. “Only two weeks.”

Watson also was referring to the end of camp for a Pirates team featuring such a strong bullpen that the only uncertainty is which qualified pitcher will not make the unit. The relievers, who pitched exceptionally well in 2013 and joined the starting rotation in carrying an average offense to a 94-win season, are all back.

“It’s been a real competitive camp,” Watson said. “But everybody in here, with the competition, everybody gets along, everybody pulls for each other. Real good team chemistry, real good group of guys.”

The 2.89 ERA the unit posted last year, third in the league, looks somewhat odd when juxtaposed against other statistics. The relievers worked hard, throwing the fourth-most innings of any team in the majors. Their 7.46 strikeouts per nine innings ranked 28th in Major League Baseball.

They compensated in other ways. When runners did reach base against the bullpen, they were stuck there 78.3 percent of the time, which tied for fifth in the majors. Opponents had a .272 batting average on balls in play against the Pirates, much lower than the .290 to .300 range that represents league average.

Usually a BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) that low represents a bit of luck. In the Pirates’ case, it probably doesn’t. Aggressive defensive shifts and the exceptional range of Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte turned more balls in play into outs. The pitchers’ pure stuff — Mark Melancon’s cutter, Justin Wilson following a 98 mph fastball with a 72 mph curveball — often caused weak contact.

“Anytime you got guys throwing up in the mid-90s coming right at you with fastballs in located spots, it’s going to set the hitter behind,” said catcher Chris Stewart, who joined the Pirates in December and started catching the relievers this spring after watching tape in the winter. “That’s what they do. They’re not afraid.”

The Pirates are blessed with two strong left-handers in Watson and Wilson, a luxury most teams would love. In a move that displayed the value of strong left-handed relievers, the Washington Nationals just assigned starter Ross Detwiler to the bullpen, hoping he can provide them more value in that role.

Not many teams have a tandem such as the Pirates do. Oakland had a similar duo in Sean Doolittle and Jerry Blevins last year, but the A’s traded Blevins to the Nationals in the winter. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ J.P. Howell and Paco Rodriguez, and Aaron Loup and Brett Cecil of the Toronto Blue Jays, are the closest replicas.

“It’s not just two lefties down there. There’s five other righties down there as well,” Watson said. “We take a lot of pride in going out there and doing our job and doing it well.”

The relievers followed their regular-season dominance with solid postseason play. In 201⁄3 playoff innings, relievers allowed only six earned runs.

“I think there’s a different level of hunger,” Watson said. “Guys are hungry, trying to get to that next step. We all have a year more experience under our belt. Some of us went to places where we’ve never been last year in October baseball and playoff baseball. To experience that and to play in those stadiums and play playoff baseball, it’s good. It kind of feeds us and we want to go further this year and get back to that spot.”

Watson and Wilson will join Melancon and closer Jason Grilli in the bullpen. Stolmy Pimentel and Jeanmar Gomez, who are both out of minor league options, will make the unit as well, providing manager Clint Hurdle with multiple long reliever options.

“We can attack you a bunch of different ways depending on how long our starter goes, and we don’t feel like we’re out of a game if our starter gets knocked out early by any means with the depth and the length that we have available as well,” Hurdle said.

One spot remains, and it appears that Bryan Morris and Vin Mazzaro will battle for it. Both are out of options, meaning the Pirates could try to trade one of them.

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG.

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