What Pirates relief pitchers did in 2013 raised the bar for the bullpen. Their late-inning dominance and the consistency with which they held leads played a large role in the team's run to the playoffs. Through the first two months of this season, the unit was also effective, making the recent deviation all the more surprising.
In the past week, the bullpen allowed 14 runs in a 122/3-inning stretch across four consecutive games and closer Jason Grilli allowed two ninth-inning home runs. Its ERA for the month of June entering the weekend series against the Chicago Cubs was 4.62. The bullpen's 2.66 ERA in March and April was the sixth-best mark in Major League Baseball and their 3.03 May ERA ranked ninth.
"You got so many ebbs and flows throughout the season," Tony Watson said. "Just a little funk. Just happens to all be a few games in a row here so it's maximized."
Almost every reliever was nicked. Watson allowed two unearned runs, courtesy of a Casey McGehee double, that allowed the Miami Marlins to tie the score June 15. The Pirates lost that game when Jared Hughes gave up McGehee's walk-off sacrifice fly after a wild pitch put a runner on third.
Justin Wilson allowed two runs Tuesday that let the Cincinnati Reds extend their lead, ensuring a Pirates comeback tied the score rather than won the game. Grilli allowed a tie-breaking home run in the ninth inning of that game, which the Pirates lost.
Stolmy Pimentel allowed two, two-run home runs in the ninth inning June 14 against the Marlins. The most egregious offense came a night earlier, when three relievers allowed four ninth-inning runs on five unintentional walks. The runs forced extra innings, though Gregory Polanco's first career home run bailed out the Pirates.
"I don't think it's any different than the past few years at this time. I think we just got into a little funk right now and we'll get out of it," Watson said.
Four games of poor performance register as little more than a blip in a 162-game season, especially when they stand as an outlier to the usual production. Watson said the issues don't come up in conversation.
"What we talk about in terms of overcoming is, if somebody's down, if somebody's upset, we go up to that guy, whatever member of the 'pen it is," Hughes said. "Whoever's having a tough day, we pick them up. We say, 'Hey man, tomorrow is a whole new day and that's one of the great things about being in the bullpen is we can go out there the next day and make it right.' "
Despite the recent struggles, the unit is still comprised of talented pitchers with good stuff. Wilson still runs his fastball up to 96 mph with movement. Hughes still induces grounders with his sinker that he now pairs with a slider and had not allowed an inherited runner to score this season entering the weekend. Watson pitched 212/3 scoreless innings before McGehee's double and Mark Melancon has not been charged with a run in June.
"The stuff's not falling off the table," Watson said. "It's just one of those things that we're going through right now. Hitters are fighting back and making adjustments, so we just got to make adjustments and get back out there. And we will, and we'll be better because of it."
Though Pirates relievers had thrown the third-most innings among major league bullpens this season before the weekend series, the team works hard to ensure each individual reliever gets enough rest. In addition to pitches and innings, the coaches track how often the reliever warms up in the bullpen without entering a game, high-stress innings and other factors, and when manager Clint Hurdle declares a reliever unavailable for a game he sticks to it.
"The charts they keep on us are extensive and I honestly don't even understand them all," Hughes said. "I know I'm in good hands, and I really trust what they do."
The week ahead
The Pirates travel to Tampa to face the Rays, who entered the weekend with the worst record in the major leagues, for three games at Tropicana Field.
The Rays lost starters Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson to elbow surgery, though Hellickson is close to returning. Though ace David Price has improved his strikeout rate and lowered his walk rate, his hits allowed per nine innings have climbed for the second consecutive season. The Rays rotation ranked 10th in the American League in ERA entering the weekend.
The search for a new commissioner
Seven months remain until commissioner Bud Selig plans to retire. The committee of seven team owners tasked with finding his replacement will look for candidates who can continue the labor peace fostered under Selig, as well as steer the sport through burgeoning television revenues and rule changes commensurate with the 21st century.
"It's critical for Pittsburgh, it's critical for baseball," said Pirates owner Bob Nutting (pictured), one of the committee members. "I think the Pittsburgh Pirates are certainly one of the most historic franchises, but Pittsburgh and the Pirates are a core of what makes baseball work and what makes baseball important."
Selig, with whom Nutting said he has a good relationship, called Nutting and asked him to join the committee.
"He is aware of my commitment to do whatever I can to help grow the game, to help protect the integrity of the game, and to have an individual and a family that's really committed to the growth of makes baseball so important," he said.
Michael Sanserino contributed to this report.