Bucs relievers search for identity

Ralph N. Paulk
| Friday, April 5, 2013, 11:09 p.m.

Jared Hughes, flanked by fellow relievers Jason Grilli and Tony Watson inside a near-empty clubhouse at PNC Park, talked confidently about the Pirates turning the corner with a vastly improved bullpen.

Watson delivered Wednesday night after strolling onto the mound with the bases full.

He put out the flames to preserve a 3-0 win over the Chicago Cubs. He pitched a scoreless 1 13 innings with a strikeout.

“It's all about getting after it,” Hughes said Thursday before the team left for a six-game road trip that began Friday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers. “There's no fear, no worries. It's about being aggressive.”

The expectations are high for Hughes and Watson this season. The second-year middle relievers are tasked not only with positioning Grilli — who has six career saves — to close out games but also keeping the long-suffering Pirates within striking distance.

The Pirates (1-2) have had mixed results from a bullpen still seeking an identity. Its problems have been compounded some by an offense that manufactured only six runs over 27 innings during the team's season-opening series.

“Everyone wants to get off to a good start,” Watson said. “It's a long way to go, but you want to stay consistent. Not every day is going to be good, but we have to have short-term memories.

“We want to come in and close out games. We have a great guy at the back end in Grilli. We want to build a bridge for (Grilli) to cross, and hopefully we'll be celebrating more often than not.”

On Thursday afternoon before a scattered crowd of 11,634, Hughes inherited a 1-0 deficit after James McDonald fashioned a Herculean effort in his first start (two hits in seven innings) and Mark Melancon breezed through the eighth.

Hughes struck out Starlin Castro and Alfonso Soriano by challenging them with his best pitch: a sometimes-unpredictable sinker.

Hughes admits he is unclear about his role. But clearly manager Clint Hurdle was convinced he could recover after issuing a one-out walk to Anthony Rizzo before falling behind 3-1 to Nate Schierholtz with two out in the ninth.

Instinctively, Hughes leaned on the sinker.

“Whenever they call my name, I'm going to throw the heck out of the ball,” Hughes said. “I'm a guy who comes in and throws a bunch of sinkers. I don't even know my role, but I know I have a pitch that works.”

But Hughes' sinker flattened out on the outside corner of the plate, and Schierholtz launched it over the left-center field wall for a two-run homer that put the Pirates in a 3-0 hole. The Pirates rallied in the home half of the ninth, but Andrew McCutchen was stranded at third after Neil Walker grounded into a game-ending double play.

Afterward, Hughes didn't search for excuses. He owned up to a bad pitch — one that enabled the Cubs to escape with a 3-2 victory.

“If I had gotten it down, it would have been a better pitch,” Hughes said. “I threw it where (Schierholtz) is good at hitting it. James pitched a heckuva game, so I just have to do it right the next time.

“The games matter in September, but they matter in April just as much. Right now, getting off to a good start is extremely important. It's just about getting the guy out.”

Hughes likely will have his chances at redemption against the Dodgers and Arizona before the Pirates return to PNC Park on April 12 for a 10-game homestand.

“A good bullpen is why teams win,” Grilli said. “Our job description is to stop the bleeding and give your ballclub a chance to win. Some guys are gone, but we have the pieces. We have guys coming into their own, and they're fun to watch.

“Sometimes you have to make that one pitch. We have to be locked in. You have to be the hero or the goat.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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