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Kovacevic: Call him the Pirates' 'glue'

| Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 10:54 p.m.
Pirates reliever Tony Watson pitches against the Cardinals at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates reliever Tony Watson pitches against the Cardinals at PNC Park.

Tony Watson isn't the Pirates' best player. That distinction goes, without a trace of a doubt, to Andrew McCutchen, who was my choice for National League MVP a month ago and has only soared since then.

Watson isn't the Pirates' best pitcher, either. That's been the oft-overwhelming Francisco Liriano.

He isn't even their best reliever. That's been the brilliant Mark Melancon.

So how to explain this assessment from the closer himself?

“Without Tony, we wouldn't be in the position we are,” Melancon was telling me this weekend. “I believe that 100 percent. He's been a huge factor.”

Melancon's got company …

Third base coach Nick Leyva: “Two words for Tony Watson: Unsung hero.”

Pitching coach Ray Searage: “I can't begin to describe for you what Tony's done for us as a staff. He's been the glue.”

Cutch: “He's meant so much to us. One inning, two innings, lefty, righty … need an extra inning? He's the guy. Really, he's been that guy for us.”

Fellow reliever and daily throwing partner Bryan Morris: “Early in the year, Tony had that stretch where outcome wasn't as good as how he was pitching. And now … it's been lights out for a while, huh?”

Yeah, to say the least.

These are the numbers everyone sees: Including his 1-2-3, seven-pitch inning Saturday night in the 2-1 edging of the Cubs, Watson, the 28-year-old lefty in his second full season in the majors, has a 2.48 ERA in 63 appearances spanning 69 innings. Opponents are batting .201 with five home runs. He has 53 strikeouts against just 12 walks.

All impressive, but nowhere near the full story:

• Watson's 0.91 WHIP — walks and hits per innings pitched, a vital stat for relievers — ranks seventh in the National League among pitchers with 60-plus appearances. For perspective, Melancon is a hair ahead of him at 0.90.

• Watson has a 1.00 ERA and both of his saves in the eight times he's gone multiple innings.

• I love this one: Watson has inherited 25 baserunners from other relievers and allowed only six to score.

Those are all for the full season, but the greatest value Watson's brought — especially in the context of a team that's largely leveled off since the All-Star break — is that he's only gotten stronger: He's made 17 consecutive scoreless appearances. He's been charged with a run just three times in his past 38 appearances. He's allowed just 17 hits in 86 at-bats since the break, just one for extra bases.

In a less tangible but no less meaningful sense, he really has been “the glue,” as Searage called him. He's been the bridge between the increasingly shaky starters and the still-sturdy back end of the bullpen. He's been the bulk of the reason the Pirates are — get this — 62-4 when leading after the sixth inning!

“Tony's the one that's gotten us there, the one who holds the lead and gives the ball to Mark,” Searage said.

For a team that doesn't exactly rip the cover off the ball offensively, that's priceless.

Just don't try sharing any of these plaudits with Watson. He'll turn 44 shades of red.

“Honestly, I'm doing my job,” he'll tell you. “My goal for this season was to grow as a pitcher, grow as a teammate in this clubhouse. That's been my mindset from our first day in Bradenton this spring. We had some new guys on the team, and I went right to Russ when he got here.”

Russell Martin, of course.

“We got on the same page right away, and he's been great not only for me but for the whole pitching staff. All I wanted to do was get better.”

But this good?

It's worth a rewind of Watson's career: He was a ninth-round draft pick in 2007 under Dave Littlefield, and he had mixed results as a starter. In his third year, the management team that took over — under Neal Huntington and Kyle Stark — had him add a curveball to his fastball-changeup repertoire.

“That's how I got hurt,” Watson said, referring to missing most of 2009 with elbow tendinitis.

That's where Jim Benedict came in. He's the special assistant and pitching wizard who has, in Watson's words, “fixed just about everything and everyone in here at some point.” Early in 2010, Benedict's first season as minor league pitching coordinator, he summoned Watson into an office in Altoona to tell him things were about to change: He was headed for the bullpen.

“I didn't like it,” Watson recalled. “I don't think anyone does.”

But it worked: Watson's velocity increased, as usually happens with that switch — he now hits 97 mph — and he solidified his two pitches until adding a slider in the past year.


“He's a complete pitcher, he's confident, and we never have to do much of anything with him,” Searage said. “We just hand him the ball and watch the results.”

Whether anyone appreciates it or not.

“Hey, man, that's the life of a middle reliever,” Cutch said. “As long as we know what he means, that's what matters.”

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