Pirates' Hurdle unfazed by early-season blown saves

Travis Sawchik
| Friday, May 16, 2014, 9:27 p.m.

NEW YORK — At the season's quarter pole, the Pirates arrived in New York on pace to make some dubious history. They are on track to break baseball's all-time single-season record for blown saves.

The Pirates lead baseball with 10 blown saves, on pace for 40 this season. The record for blown saves by a team is 34 by the 2004 Colorado Rockies.

However, it's still relatively early in the season and the underlying skills of the Pirates' relievers — strikeout rates, velocity and walk rates — remain strong, suggesting the Pirates bullpen has been the victim of bad luck. But the end-game woes are perhaps the most responsible for the team's sub-.500 record. With a league-average save conversion rate the Pirates would be two games above .500, instead of six games below it, entering Yankee Stadium at 4:05 p.m. Saturday.

Friday's game was rained out and will be made up as part of a doubleheader beginning at 1:05 p.m. Sunday.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was the Rockies' manager when the blown saves record was set in 2004. The Rockies also blew 29 saves in 2007 under Hurdle, the most blown saves by a team that advanced to the World Series. The Pirates converted 55 of 70 save opportunities last season when the bullpen was a strength of the ballclub.

“Ten (blown saves) is an uncharacteristic at this point in time compared to what we did last year, there is no doubt about that,” Hurdle said. “They're human beings.”

And human beings are perhaps most comfortable in familiar roles. The bullpen structure has been shaken up with Jason Grilli's injury.

Does Hurdle believe interim closer Mark Melancon is comfortable in the ninth-inning role? Melancon has 21 saves over the last two seasons in filling in for Grilli. But he's also blown seven saves, though some have occurred before the ninth inning. In the eighth, Melancon has been one of the game's best setup men.

“It's an easy thing to throw out there (after Thursday's blown save),” Hurdle said. “But I think (Melancon) has shown that ability in the time he spent there last year. The only reason you question him is when he blows a save. He has two now. I have no doubt he's comfortable (in the ninth inning).”

The point is likely moot as Grilli (oblique strain) expects to return to the closer's role in the near future. Grilli said he did not believe he needed a rehab assignment but he might throw another simulated game before being activated from the disabled list. Grilli threw a 24-pitch simulated game in Milwaukee and said the session went well.

Perhaps the Pirates bullpen will stabilize when players return to their accustomed roles.

Hurdle does have two other end-game options in Justin Wilson and Tony Watson.

Hurdle said Wilson's stuff on Thursday was the most “dominating” of his career. Wilson throws in the mid-90s, and the left-hander's cutter appears to have more movement this season. Watson is striking out 11 batters per nine innings while keeping his walk rate low. Hurdle has noted they are more than left-handed specialists as both pitchers are better against right-handed hitters for their careers.

They are perhaps end-game solutions if the blown save epidemic continues.

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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