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Pirates notebook: Grilli assumes role as closer

| Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 7:51 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates closer Jason Grilli heads to the bullpen before the start of a game against the Reds Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, at PNC Park.

It's Mark and Cheese time again for the Pirates.

Before the game Saturday against the Reds, manager Clint Hurdle said Jason Grilli would pitch the ninth inning if there was a save opportunity. Mark Melancon, who blew his previous two save chances, returned to the setup role.

However, Hurdle would not commit to keeping those roles intact through the playoffs.

“I'm taking it one game at a time,” Hurdle said. “Jason might very well be at the point where he can throw back-to-back days. I think he might be.”

Grilli has been used sparingly since coming off the disabled list Sept. 4. Although he hasn't regained all of his usual fastball velocity, his secondary pitches are up to speed. He said he's ready to handle the rigors of regular use in high-leverage situations.

“I've been ready for a while,” Grilli said.

Melancon became the de facto closer July 23 after Grilli strained his right forearm while pitching against the Nationals. In 23 outings as the closer, Melancon went 0-1 with 14 saves and three blown saves.

On Wednesday, Melancon gave up two runs in the ninth in a 3-2 loss to the Padres. On Friday, he was unable to hold a 5-2 lead against the Reds.

In 47 outings before Grilli was hurt, Melancon had a 0.97 ERA, a 0.82 WHIP, and a .188 batting average against. After Grilli's injury, Melancon had a 1.99 ERA, a 1.24 WHIP and a .286 batting average against.

“There are different ways to make (batters) less comfortable. There are different ways to attack (batters),” Hurdle said. “He has the weapons to do it. That's the challenge. What can he do to readjust and get the swings and misses or the better mishits he was getting earlier in the season?”

But going into the final week of the regular season, there's no time for Melancon to give his mechanics a complete overhaul.

“You're not going to reinvent,” Hurdle said. “But you might want to refine.”

Warnings don't sit well

Major League Baseball had a feeling there might be trouble this weekend between the Pirates and Reds.

Before the series, MLB warned the umpiring crew to be on the lookout for hit batsmen. That explains why both teams were immediately warned Friday when Andrew McCutchen was hit by a pitch from Sam LeCure.

It's not the first time that's happened. Hurdle said the umpires were told to be on alert when the Pirates played the Cardinals in August, based on an incident four months earlier.

On April 26, Pirates starter Jonathan Sanchez gave up back-to-back homers in the first inning against the Cardinals. Sanchez was ejected two batters later for hitting Allen Craig with a pitch. Sanchez was designated for assignment April 30.

“We were there in August,” Hurdle said. “It was old news and bad news by then and (Sanchez) wasn't even still with us. So, I do think they try to form some kind of chain of events and make people aware.”

During the Pirates' three-game series in St. Louis on Aug. 13-15, each team had one hit batsman. There were no ejections.

Hurdle said the warning system is inconsistently applied and enforced by different umpiring crews.

“We've had games with warnings where guys have been hit and nobody got tossed,” Hurdle said. “It's a very gray (system), and that's the challenge for the umpires. The game has a way of taking care of itself when we let it take care of itself. I get what they say; we just flat-out don't agree with the policy.”

According to STATS, 24 batters were hit by pitches in the 19 games between the Pirates and Cardinals this year. That's the third-highest total in a season series since 2011.

Through Friday's game, there have been 23 hit batsmen in 14 games between the Pirates and the Reds.

Pirates pitchers lead the majors with 67 hit batsmen.

“It's kind of a common denominator here, don't you think?” Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “Know what I mean? I'm just saying, it kind of looks like it.”

After McCutchen was plunked Friday, neither team pointed fingers. LeCure spoke briefly with McCutchen and offered an apology of sorts.

“He said he wasn't trying to hit me,” McCutchen said. “I don't look at it as anything past that.”

Even so, McCutchen was not surprised about being nicked.

“They have a game plan, and it is to throw inside,” McCutchen said. “If you throw inside, then you'd better miss inside. Don't throw it over the middle of the plate inside, because they know what's going to happen if they miss. That's what I look forward to.”

Time change

The starting time for Saturday's game against the Reds at Great American Ball Park has been changed to 1:05 p.m. to accommodate a Fox national broadcast. The game was originally slated to begin at 4:10 p.m.

Parking at a premium

With the Steelers playing at night at Heinz Field, the Pirates are encouraging fans to arrive early to Sunday's game and park downtown unless they have pre-sold parking passes on the North Shore. That is particularly true for anyone arriving after noon.

Parking Authority Lots in the Golden Triangle and Strip District will be charging $5, and $2 parking will be available in ALCO Parking lots at 11th and Smallman Street as well as the Manor Garage at 564 Forbes Avenue downtown.

Other parking options include River Avenue lots, the Grant Street Transportation Center near the Convention Center, the Fulton Avenue lot on the north side of the West End Bridge and Station Square utilizing the Gateway Clipper Fleet. The “T” is free from the four Golden Triangle stations to the North Shore.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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