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With Grilli's return as closer, Pirates' relievers find strength in familiar bullpen roles

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Pirates closer Jason Grilli pumps his fist after the last out of the game against the Dodgers on Thursday, May 29, 2014, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. The Pirates won 6-3.
Saturday, May 31, 2014, 12:21 a.m.

LOS ANGELES — There was a distinct 2013 vibe to the Pirates' 6-3 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers late Thursday night.

“We played Pirates baseball to a ‘T,' ” right-hander Gerrit Cole said. “We passed the baton at the plate, played good defense, threw a lot of strikes and took some punches.”

It's a formula the Pirates relied upon last year as they marched into the NL playoffs, and one that's been difficult to replicate this season. No ingredient is more vital than the bullpen charting a smooth course from Cole's exit to closer Jason Grilli's sixth save.

It's been a week since Grilli came off the disabled list. After Grilli was given a few days to settle in, manager Clint Hurdle put the band back together Thursday by reinstating Grilli as the closer.

It was the first time since April 20 — when an injured Grilli blew a save and cost Cole a win — that the relief corps had all its pieces in their accustomed roles.

“It's nice,” said Cole (5-3) worked 6 13 innings and left the game with a three-run lead. “Having Grilli back, everybody falls back into place and it makes it so much stronger. Guys do things that they're really comfortable doing. They don't have to worry about trying to do more. That takes your mind off things and allows you to be aggressive.”

The bullpen needed 29 pitches to get the last eight outs, a rate only slightly higher than pitching coach Ray Searage's oft-stated target of three pitches or less per out. The overall performance perfectly fit Hurdle's template for closing out a game.

“It was good for everyone tonight, the way we were able to finish,” Hurdle said.

Tony Watson, the first guy out of the bullpen, was the most efficient of all. The lefty came in with a runner on first base and one out and got Dee Gordon to ground into a double play on one pitch.

Watson has been arguably the Pirates' best reliever — perhaps even their best pitcher, period. He's riding a team-best scoreless streak of 14 23 innings.

In the eighth, setup man Mark Melancon faced Andre Ethier, Yasiel Puig and cleanup hitter Hanley Ramirez. Melancon cut them down on a weak grounder and two strikeouts — 13 pitches, 10 of them strikes.

“He went through the meat of the order very efficiently,” Hurdle said.

Grilli took the mound the ninth. It was not his first save situation since coming off the DL. He closed May 23, but that was on a night when the bullpen was short-handed because of overuse.

For Grilli, the adrenaline rush is a bit sweeter when he knows he's the closer.

“It's the end of the game, the last three outs,” Grilli said. “It's different. It's big situations. It means more.”

There was a small hiccup — Justin Turner's two-out double — but Grilli got through the inning unscathed.

“When you know your role, it's easier to do your job,” Grilli said.

Hurdle will keep a close eye on Grilli's health the rest of the season. On days when Grilli is being rested, Melancon will fill in as closer and Watson becomes the setup guy.

“We still have multiple guys who can pitch the eighth inning,” Hurdle said. “(Justin) Wilson can be used a variety of different ways now, as well as (Jared) Hughes.”

Jeanmar Gomez resumes his role as long reliever.

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

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