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Pirates shy away from extending closer

| Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011

With the Pirates' bullpen struggling over the past few weeks, using their best reliever, closer Joel Hanrahan, in the highest-leverage situations whenever possible seems logical.

To hear closers and the coaches who work with them tell it, the decision isn't that simple. Avoiding injury is a concern, and like most teams, the Pirates intend to keep using their strongest reliever primarily in the ninth inning to collect saves, even if other relievers run into trouble earlier.

Manager Clint Hurdle has said he likely won't use Hanrahan for any outing longer than a four-out save this year, and pitching coach Ray Searage agrees with that approach even though the bullpen has contributed to the 10-game losing streak the Pirates took into their series opener Monday night in San Francisco.

"If we try to push the envelope, we might lose him for two or three days, because here's a guy who comes in the game and leaves it all out there in one inning, or four outs. To push that, I'd be real leery on it," Searage said.

Last year, Hanrahan worked primarily in the seventh and eighth innings before closer Octavio Dotel was traded July 31. He pitched more than one inning four times in 72 outings and had six saves. A high strikeout rate -- 12.9 per nine innings in 2010 -- helped earn him the chance to work in the ninth this year.

Hanrahan said his mindset is the same in all of his outings, whether or not he enters in a save situation.

"I'm a reliever, so whenever they call me I'm going to be ready," Hanrahan said. "I'll be ready to pinch-hit if they need me to."

General manager Neal Huntington believes closing requires slightly different skills from other relief roles, and that saves, though they can't be recorded if a team isn't leading in the late innings, influence a closer's market value significantly.

"Closers are paid handsomely for saves and for quality performance in the arbitration or free-agent market," Huntington said. "Saves have value, but are a result of team production and not all saves are created equal. We look at the overall picture and combine our subjective and objective evaluations as we make decisions."

The emphasis placed on saves around baseball means relievers that become closers see the change as a promotion and an opportunity to become more visible. Heath Bell, one of the league's top closers for the San Diego Padres since 2009, said saves are always the bottom line by which closers measure themselves.

"You can't take care of (whether) it's going to be a save (situation) or not, but you can take care of not letting them score," said Bell, who is tied for third in the National League with 31 saves. "You could go out there and give up one run but get the save every time, and they're going to like you."

Bell said the only difference he sees between entering with a tie score and a lead is the crowd's enthusiasm. He also said that while plenty of setup men have become successful in the ninth inning, fewer have become defined by the role, creating the idea of the "closer's mentality" that makes some managers hesitant to use closers in non-save situations.

"There's pitchers out there that can pitch and do real well in the closer's role, but then you have closers that you look at and go, 'Dude, he's a closer,' " Bell said. "I think you're just born that way."

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