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Pirates still have issues to address as postseason approaches

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates reliever Mark Melancon walks past the mound after giving up the lead in the eighth inning against the Cubs on Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013, 9:45 p.m.

CHICAGO — After the champagne and beer had been sprayed and consumed during a celebration that soaked the Wrigley Field visiting clubhouse carpet, the Pirates awoke to a sobering reality Tuesday.

They must deal with several significant issues as the close of the season draws near.

The Pirates' offense continues to weigh down the team. And what was once their chief strength, the bullpen, has become a question mark.

Before last Wednesday, the club had converted 68 of 70 leads after the seventh inning into wins. But the Pirates entered Tuesday having lost two out of their last five games when leading after seven.

And it was nearly three of five. That fate was avoided only by the remarkable 9-8-3-2 putout to end Monday's win.

Mark Melancon had been the game's best setup man for much of the season. But on Monday he blew his third save in as many appearances.

“Maybe the season is catching up to him a little bit for a guy that set the bar so high with swings and misses and dynamic mis-hits,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “Guys are catching a little more of the ball, and the ball is finding grass. I think we have some time to make a couple of minor adjustments, and a couple were made last night.”

Hurdle said he took Charlie Morton out after throwing 89 pitches Monday because he wants Melancon and Grilli to again become accustomed to pitching the eighth and ninth innings.

“I want to put the wheels back on our bullpen the way we had it early, when we were most efficient team in baseball pitching out of the bullpen,” Hurdle said.

Grilli hasn't looked like the pitcher he was before he was injured in July. He nearly gave away the lead in a second consecutive outing Monday.

Grilli left a 92 mph fastball out over the plate to Ryan Sweeney, who lined the ball into the right-center gap. Only an accurate relay throw from Justin Morneau allowed the Pirates to escape with win No. 90.

Morneau, the club's cleanup hitter, has not been the antidote to the Pirates' season-long offensive struggles since he was acquired from the Twins.

The Pirates entered Tuesday batting .231 and scoring 3.5 runs per game in September.

In August with the Twins, Morneau homered nine times and drove in 21 runs in 116 at-bats. In 67 September at-bats with the Pirates, Morneau has just two RBI and no homers.

“He wasn't in a pennant race, and now he's in pennant race and maybe getting outside of himself,” Hurdle said. “We've had a couple conversations.”

Hurdle said he believes all three struggling players are akin to buy-low stock opportunities. Said Hurdle: “For me (struggles) just means they're just going to get hot again.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib

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