Pirates' Hanrahan shows he belongs

| Sunday, June 17, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

Those Joel Hanrahan trade rumors have died down a bit, although the Pirates might yet deal their All-Star closer depending on how the season unfolds. But any offer likely would be one the club absolutely could not refuse.

“Our guys know that, once we get the ball to Joel, we're in a really good place,” manager Clint Hurdle said.

Going into the Pirates' weekend series in Cleveland, Hanrahan was in more of a quiet place. Not counting a maintenance outing against the Orioles, his last meaningful work through Friday was June 9 against Kansas City, when he got his 17th save in 19 chances.

Hanrahan was tied for sixth in the majors in saves and, if he is not among the game's elite closers, he's almost there. Since getting past a hamstring injury in April, he has converted 12 of 13 save opportunities with a 1.17 ERA. After yielding eight walks in his first eight games, he has walked two in his past 11.

“We knew he was dinged-up with his leg,” Hurdle said. “An (injury-free) season for a closer are few and far between. ... They're going to have games that get away.”

After beating out Evan Meek for the job during spring training last season, Hanrahan converted 40 of 44 save opportunities and made the All-Star team, going 26 for 26 in save opportunities before the break. Only twice before had a Pirates reliever posted 40 saves.

Although Hurdle downplays save totals, the number was impressive, figuring in well more than half of the Pirates' 72 wins.

“If you knew the names of the closers I've had in my managerial career, you'd know how comfortable I am with Joel, even when he's not at the top of his game,” Hurdle said.

Hanrahan, 30, said “nothing's changed” from last year, but there have been a few adjustments. His fastball velocity is down, but he still brings the heat with an average clocking of 96 mph. He is relying less on hard stuff and more on his slider. Last year, 83 percent of his pitches were fastballs, fifth among relievers. This year, he's been around 75 percent.

Even though Hanrahan has a higher strikeout rate than in 2011, “I like the fact that he's not getting caught up in strikeouts,” Hurdle said. “He's not trying to create some kind of pitch or spin that isn't there right now. His slider's in a good place. ... The fastball command is back in place. The velocity is firm and solid. Against a closer like him, an offense has got to show up with its ‘A' game to have a chance. When he doesn't get it done, that means the other team is probably above its game that day.”

This did not happen overnight. An ineffective starter as a rookie with the Nationals in 2007, Hanrahan was much better the next season as a middle reliever. A shaky start as Washington's closer in 2009 led to a trade: He and Lastings Milledge went to the Pirates at the end of June for Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett. Hanrahan improved dramatically that year and was solid in 2010, but he still had to wait his turn behind Matt Capps and Octavio Dotel before claiming the closer's role.

“Going into last year, I'd never really had success closing,” he said. “I was going out there sometimes questioning myself like, ‘How's this going to go?' You know you can do it, but you've got to see results. I had the results last year, so I could come into this year confident and feeling fine.”

Bob Cohn and Rob Biertempfel are staff writers for Trib Total Media. They can be reached at bcohn@tribweb.com and rbiertempfel@tribweb.com.

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