The Power of the Pirates Bullpen

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen has already shown their resiliency this season. Twice this year the ‘pen has been called upon to cover 8.0 innings. And they did so very efficiently. They’ve seen several guys come and go, but at the end of the day, the men in the bullpen have been solid for the Pirates.

“I’m pleased with the bullpen,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “They’re without ego. There’s nobody out there banging the drum to be used any differently than they’ve been used. They’ve all contributed significantly. There’s not one guy that hasn’t given us a shot in the arm when we’ve needed it. They feed off one another. They know the goal is to get the ball to Joel [Hanrahan].”

The second of the two occasions the bullpen had to throw 8.0 innings of relief came on Wednesday at PNC Park. After Erik Bedard was removed from the game with an injury in the top of the 2nd inning, the relievers took over. Brad Lincoln, Jared Hughes, Juan Cruz, Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan held the Washington Nationals to one earned run while whiffing 11.

“We’ve had games in the last two weeks where they threw eight innings out of the bullpen,” Hurdle said. “That’s tough duty. And to do it twice. To have guys give you multiple innings then bounce back as quick as you would want them to. There’s been nobody that said I need another day. There hasn’t been overuse.”

“They’ve been very resilient. They’ve been very effective. They bent, but they didn’t break,” Hurdle said after their performance on Wednesday.

The latest addition to the group has been Brad Lincoln. The starter turned reliever seems to have found his niche in the bullpen. He’s posted a minuscule 0.63 ERA over 14.1 innings with a 16:6 K/BB ratio.

“When he’s throwing the ball the way he’s throwing up here recently, he can be a good starter, or he can be a good late inning reliever,” General Manager Neal Huntington said.

Cruz, who made the club out of spring training after signing a minor league deal over the offseason, has been scored upon just once in his first 13 appearances. He also filled in as closer for the club when Hanrahan was sidelined with a hamstring injury.

Righty Hughes pitched two scoreless innings in relief on Wednesday and has not been scored upon in his last three outings.

“His evolution is in place,” Hurdle said. “I like the man. I like the makeup. I like the arm. I like the sink at the end. Now, he’s reading swings a little bit. He’s feeding off the other guys. He’s been a very valuable asset out there for us.”

Hughes’s 16.2 innings in relief is most on the team, while lefty Tony Watson leads the team in appearances with 14.

“I think that’s one thing I think we’ve managed well so far. We’re well below 50 percent of their appearances for games,” Hurdle said. “We were redlining that earlier in the season. I do struggle with the 70 number, let alone, three guys over 70 last year. That’s the way the season played out. That’s why it goes back to the importance of starting pitchers pitching the innings that we need them to pitch. Historically it just goes to show you that guys that pitch over 70 times in a year, the next year can be challenged dramatically. Can they bounce back? Yeah, the next year usually after you let them go. They bounce back for somebody else.”

With the Pirates closer out until Sunday (Bereavement leave), Hurdle feels confident in right-handers Juan Cruz or Jason Grilli getting the late innings closed down in his absence. Until Hanrahan is back in Pittsburgh, Hurdle said the way he will use them in the late innings will depend on matchups.

“It basically comes down to a leverage situation,” Hurdle said. “I have my mind set up on who our best leverage guy is. Earlier on we were throwing Cruz much more against left-handers. Those numbers aren’t quite playing out the same way right now. It’s just assessing the situation. Where they are in the lineup. If their middle of their lineup is up in the eighth inning then Grilli is going to get the middle of the lineup in the eighth inning. Then we can go with Cruz or whatever direction later. I’m looking to leverage Grilli where I need to leverage him against the stiffer part of the lineup.”

“Our bullpen has been a pretty strong unit back there,” Hanrahan said. “We’re all pretty close. Lincoln has been throwing the ball amazing all year. No matter who goes in there, they put it on the line. Our bullpen, you can’t say enough about them.”