Pirates bullpen continues to evolve, adjust minus their closer

Rob Biertempfel
| Tuesday, April 29, 2014, 10:39 p.m.

BALTIMORE — Not much changed for Mark Melancon when Jason Grilli went on the disabled list last week.

Melancon will move out of his eighth-inning setup role and fill in as the Pirates' closer for at least a couple of weeks.

“It's just a matter of when I stretch — an inning later,” Melancon said with a chuckle. “I've been pretty much a ‘closer' in the eighth inning, so it's the same (approach).”

Grilli's injury has had a ripple effect on the other relief pitchers, too. It's nothing new to them. One of the bullpen's strengths last season was its ability to adapt and cope with stressful circumstances. That's especially true for the back-end duo of Melancon and Tony Watson.

“We all call ourselves ‘failed starters' down there (in the pen), so we've all been in different situations before,” Watson said. “We're all capable of eating up some innings if we need to, or just coming in for one guy and getting a big out. It's something we like and something we're used to.”

A left-hander, Watson's role has grown each season since his debut in 2011. Last year, he ranked 10th in the National League with 22 holds, and his 0.88 WHIP was among the top 25 for National League relievers. Of his 70 appearances, 22 came in the seventh inning and 37 were in the eighth.

Manager Clint Hurdle is confident using Watson as a full-fledged setup man instead of merely a left-on-left specialist. Over his career, Watson has been just as effective against right-handed batters (.196 average, .633 OPS) as lefties (.218 average, .570 OPS).

“I don't really look at the splits much,” Watson said. “I just look at the hitter and attack, go right at him.”

Watson has a fastball that touches 94 mph with good movement, and he's able to spot it on both sides of the plate. He has a healthy 11.9 strikeout per nine innings rate, but can be just as effective pitching to contact.

“I think everybody in the league is aware now that he pitches glove-side,” Hurdle said. “What he's done to counter-punch that is his changeup has become a filthy pitch for him.”

Watson is throwing his changeup more often against left-handed batters.

“We call that speed-dialing the hitter,” Hurdle said. “What they see is fastball, so they either swing through it or they hit it 450 feet foul. He's continuing to evolve, but those are the weapons that have allowed him to become the power tool he is on the mound.”

Saturday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals was the Pirates' first save situation since Grilli went on the DL. Watson tossed a 1-2-3 eighth inning — retiring right-handed hitters Yadier Molina, Allen Craig and Peter Bourjos. And Melancon was perfect in the ninth.

Melancon took over as closer for six weeks last season after Grilli was injured in July. A closer with the Houston Astros in 2011, Melancon had no trouble moving back into that role just four weeks into this season.

“You don't anticipate it happening this early,” Melancon said. “But other than that, it's the same. Everybody is well-equipped and able to do any role. That's what's nice about our bullpen.”

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

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