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Failure to close burdens Pirates

| Thursday, May 8, 2014, 8:55 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates reliever Justin Wilson stands on the mound before being removed in a double switch against the Giants on Monday, May 5, 2014, at PNC Park.

The Pirates have gone from first to worst in an area critical to their success a season ago: the end game.

Last season, the Pirates finished first in the National League in save percentage, and second in baseball to the Texas Rangers, converting 79 percent of save opportunities (55 saves in 70chances).

This season, the Pirates rank last in baseball in converting 40 percent of save opportunities, blowing nine of 15 save opportunities. (It's important to remember blown saves also include leads lost prior to the ninth inning).

While there are a number of culprits behind the Pirates' slow start — from inconsistent starting pitching to up-and-down offense – had the Pirates just converted two-thirds of save opportunities, the league-average success rate, they would be 18-16, not 14-20, entering this weekend's series with the St. Louis Cardinals.

While bullpens are subject to more year-to-year variation due to smaller sample sizes, the Pirates were not expecting such severe regression.

“They are hitting them where we ain't. It's a funny game sometimes,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “(Monday night) Neil Walker dives for three (batted balls) in the ninth, a foot there or a foot there, a stride there or a stride there, and those hits turn into outs.”

Instead, the Pirates suffered their ninth blown save of the season. They blew just 15 save opportunities last year.

Last season the Pirates' pen was one of the game's best at stranding inherited runners. This season the Pirates are last in the NL, allowing 38 percent of inherited runners to score.

“You look at our inherited runners scored ,and they are completely different than last year,” Hurdle said. “I think the overall consistency probably hasn't been what it was at this particular point in time last year. That would be the reason I look at it …You either meet the demands of the game or you don't.”

What is perplexing is beyond the injury and decline in performance of closer Jason Grilli — who has already blown three saves — the underlying skills and statistics of the rest of the bullpen have remained unchanged or have improved.

• Mark Melancon, on paper, is the same pitcher as a year ago. He still is throwing an effective 92 mph cutter, he still is a ground-ball machine, who walks few batters. But the San Francisco Giants strung together several hits against him in the ninth inning Monday for his first blown save of the season.

• Tony Watson already has matched his blown save total of last year (two) despite doubling his strikeout rate early this season (11.4 strikeouts per nine), while keeping his walk rate (1.80 walks per nine) and ERA (1.80) exceptionally low.

• Justin Wilson still is throwing with rare mid-90s velocity for a left-handed reliever, and Bryan Morris has seen a dramatic improvement in his stuff, which he credited to a new strength-training regimen in the offseason.

Those skill sets are reasons Morris believes the bullpen performance only can improve going forward.

“When things aren't going great that is kind of how it goes,” Morris said. “Next week we could win seven in a row, I could throw three straight pitches down the middle and get three straight ground balls to shortstop. ... Your mishaps are going to get blown up more (late in a game). It's a lot more noticeable when you don't do your job as opposed to when you do your job.

“Hopefully in a couple months we won't have to talk about these situations. It's a long season. We have a long way to go.”

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

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